While scientists estimate that Mother Earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old, homo sapiens, my species, has only been here for a brief 200,000 years. And isn’t it remarkable to think, that of all the miraculous phenomena to witness or consider — molten meteors that blaze the summer sky, a unique snowflake among the billions that fall in a dusting, the ancient movement of tectonic plates, fire — so much of modern life depends on a humble invention that most of us take for granted? I’m not talking about the World Wide Web here; I’m paying homage to the cold closet we appreciate only when the power goes out. How did mankind survive even one week without refrigerators?
There are plenty of methodologies our ancestors used to save what we eat, and wouldn’t you know it, hipsters are making food preservation cool again. Once reserved for aproned grannies and country folks, now city dwellers grow produce on rooftops and porches, and put up jams and jellies crafted from the fruits (or vegetables) of their labor.
Charlie Berkinshaw, 38, remembers his introduction to food preservation. While living in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife Angie, Berkinshaw participated in a group called The League of Urban Canners. Charlie recalls with a laugh the group’s mission: to acquire fruits and vegetables from local trees and gardens and then preserve them as pickles, preserves and ciders. Some members of the group preserved fruit using a colonial method that used apple cider vinegar and herbs. This elixir, called a shrub, produces a sweet-tart vinegar that can be mixed with beverages or used in cooking. Angie, then pregnant, found that the shrub satisfied her craving for a cocktail when mixed with club soda.
Charlie looked for commercial shrubs to bring home to Angie, but he found that most had only one flavor note — like lemon, ginger or cherry — and lacked the complexity Angie desired. He started experimenting with flavors at home.
In late 2013, after the birth of their daughter, Charlie took a year to develop his new passion into a family business that would bring “unique, different” shrubs to the market. He scaled back his career as a consultant to part-time, so that he could develop recipes, acquire bar codes, and source glass containers. By November 2014, Element Shrub was available in two stores in Washington, D.C. Today, the mixtures are widely available at national grocery stores, and specialty shops, such as Lyon Distilling in St. Michaels.
Berkinshaw believes that shrubs are the perfect addition to any modern bar or kitchen. They add “low-sugar complexity with real ingredients” to cocktails, non-alcoholic drinks, salad dressings and marinades. Element produces an array of flavors: from the popular ginger lime and chai pear, to the more obscure honeydew jalapeno and pineapple tumeric. The curious and the thirsty are welcome to stop by the tasting room at Lyon Distilling to sample a sip. Element also produces ready-to-drink sparkling “shrub and club” sodas.
For those ready to make their own shrubs, there are plenty of recipes available online. All it takes is a little vinegar and sugar, some fruit and herbs, and a willingness to try something out of the ordinary. The mixture can process with a steep in the fridge for a few days or a gentle simmer on a stove. Either way, shrubs offer a miraculous taste of the past, just like a summer peach pulled from a Mason jar in February. After all, up until about 100 years ago, traditional preservation shaped the way we ate, drank and survived. Wouldn’t it be a shame if our modern conveniences robbed us of a delicious and healthy heritage we were meant to enjoy?