Whistle Belly Vengeance

Flipping through one of a stack of old books I seem to be collecting on “ye olde” customs of New England, I found not only a recipe for a popular drink called “Flip”, but also one very much linked to my adopted city:  “A terrible drink is said to have been made popular in Salem – a drink with a terrible name – whistle-belly-vengeance. It consisted of sour household beer simmered in a kettle, sweetened with molasses, filled with brown-bread crumbs and drunk piping hot” (Alice Morse Earle, Customs and Fashions of Old New England, 1893).  I had seen that phrase before–in Old England–where it generally seemed to convey a truly awful drink, so it is odd to see it used as a name of a popular one:  the link must be the sour (spoiled) beer.  Our colonial forebears lived in an ever-perishable world which disdained waste of all kinds, so spoiled beer was turned into something sweet and hot to cover up its taste, and I suppose that the bread crumbs even added a bit of sustenance.  Many of the drinks referenced by Earle are similar in their combination of sweet and hot–and a few have proteins mixed in as well;  sillabub (hard cider, mixed with sugar, nutmeg and cream)and the afore-mentioned flip (strong beer, mixed with sugar, nutmeg, pumpkin and molasses, a shot of rum and a beaten egg, stirred with a hot fire poker) seem to have been the most substantive.  In general, possets were drinks which featured cream or milk, and fustians contained eggs.

Staffordshire posset pot, early 18th century, courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Beverige was a lighter, non-alcoholic drink generally made of water mixed with ginger and molasses, but when served to sailors it was strengthened by the addition of rum and vinegar, and became switchel. There were countless rum drinks, served hot and cold:  beer was mixed with rum (bogus), cider was mixed with rum (stone-wall), molasses was mixed with rum (black-strap).  New England was indeed awash in rum, perhaps fueled by rum, and therein, unfortunately, lies its major connection to slavery. My own house was built by a wealthy rum distiller, so I think about this connection quite a bit.

Eighteenth-century caricature from the George Arents Collection of Tobacciana in the New York Public Library (where there is smoking there is usually drinking); the Buckman Tavern in Lexington, Massachusetts, from A Revolutionary Pilgrimage (1917) by Ernest Clifford Peixotto.

Apparently a British brewery has revived Whistle Belly Vengeance:  a “ malty reddish ale”  produced by Summerskills Brewery of Devon is clearly not based on the original recipe, but it does seem to have attained the “frothiness” that was often aspired to way back when.

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