The wildest drinks of the Old West

 It can sometimes be hard to fathom the strangeness of the past. People sometimes like to trot out that L. P. Hartley quote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," but I don't think the quote really communicates how alien the past can be.

It can be a little deceptive, because there are hints of the present in the past. In their diet, as an example, cowboys ate baked beans, as well all know, and we eat baked beans, so how different could they have been?

But we don't eat sonofabitch stew, which was something of a treat for cowboys and was made with pretty much any part of a calf, including offal and brains mixed with hot sauce. But the key ingredient was something called the ""marrow gut," a tube filled with a marrow-like substance that was prized for its sweetness, and nobody knows what the hell cowboys were talking about when they described this.

There are examples of this sort of forgotten culinary sensibility everywhere, once you start digging: Abandoned ingredients, forgotten recipes, strange tastes. Some of them were borrowed from indigenous American cooking, some of them were strictly regional and were the product of having to make due with whatever grew nearby, and some were products of desperation during lean times, the same way we nowadays might eat a Ritz cracker with ketchup on it when money runs out between paychecks.

Here are some samples of drinks of the era, none of which have made it to the modern era.

Aspen liquor:  A mountain man drink created by soaking aspen bark in sarsaparilla; after a while, the bark was removed and the infused sarsaparilla was mixed with an equal measure of whiskey. This was likely borrowed from Native Americans, who frequently used bark as a dietary supplement, as well as drinking a sassafras root beverage that inspired modern root beer.

Buffalo cider: A drink of desperation. Indians, mountain men, and later buffalo hunters would turn to buffalo cider when dehydrated and far from water. The so-called cider was just the liquid contents of a bison's stomach.

Gall Bitters: Apparently, some took a liking to buffalo cider, because it's very similar to a drink actually favored by mountain men called "gall bitters." The recipe is simple: Mix one a cup of buffalo gallbladder fluid with one pint of water. Those who drank it described throwing up the first time, but soon their stomach got used to it and the drinkers found it invigorating.

Rabbit dropping tea: I have not yet found independent confirmation that this was a real thing, but it is a popular story nowadays that cowboys used to boil up rabbit pellets into a tea as a hangover cure.

Snakehead whiskey: This was just rotgut whiskey, but all sorts of additives tended to be added to the stuff in order to punch it up, including strychnine and tobacco plugs. In this case, the additive was severed rattlesnake heads.


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