Like spring-cleaning your house, spring tonics often signal the end of dreary winter with a cleansing of the body—a promise to accept the nourishment of the new season.
It seems everyone has their own creative recipe. I have heard everything—from sassafras, dandelion, mint, spinach, sweet fern and ramps and more.
Growing up, I often visited relatives in Massachusetts. They referred to “tonic” as one would “soda” or “pop.” My mom and grandma touted the health benefits of tonics, and discouraged drinking soda.
They always played (their word) with teas, juices and flavored waters. I can still see my grandma sitting in her favorite outside wooden chair with a big brown pitcher on her lap using a wood pounder to beat the hell out of some lemons to make the most delicious lemonade.
Other times, she and mom would beat up on fresh tomatoes and add water and their favorite ingredient, apple cider vinegar, to create an elixir. They made strawberry, sassafras, sumac, maple and peach drinks, and many others that I can’t even remember. All were delicious. They added fresh mint to many of these for a distinct perk. In addition to apple cider vinegar, grandma and mom also used lemons, juiced or whole, to enhance some of their concoctions.
Like mother, like daughter—and my daughter, who has a juicer machine and makes some wonderful drinks with it. I especially like the ones containing carrots, beets, celery and cucumber, very light and healthful tasting.
Drinking a spring tonic is a morning ritual in many cultures across the world. Native Americans are no exception. Many recipe examples I have found in Native books feature tonics made with sassafras and/or dandelion. Other Native flavorings favored in spring are birch, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. And hundreds of teas and medicines are created from various barks and roots. I was surprised at the delicious bark teas from both white pine bark and hemlock pine (not the aquatic shrub that is poisonous).
A word of caution about sassafras, it might be toxic if taken on a long-term regimen, check with your doctor to make sure it doesn’t interfere with any medications you may be on. If you are foraging for greens like mint, dandelion, sweet fern or others, be sure to wash thoroughly. Another caution comes from personal experience. For several years, I made a drink that I assumed was very healthy every day; I was kind of addicted to it, actually. I put V-8 juice, the juice of half a lemon, a small splash of chili sauce, another of Worchestershire on ice and wolfed it down. It tasted great and healthy, but after a few years my dentist suggested the lemon juice might be responsible for my substantial loss of tooth enamel. Word to the wise: Enjoy everything in moderation. Don’t be afraid of lemons though; they add so much flavor and freshness to many of these spring tonics. Ginger, fresh fruits, fresh herbs, cucumber and grapes are all good additions to water. Let them steep in the fridge overnight. Try different combinations to make your own custom spring tonic and feel good all the time.
A Basic Everyday Tonic
8 ounces of water
3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Use room temperature water, adding the ingredients and stirring to mix thoroughly. Drink in the morning. If you can’t drink it all at once, refrigerate and sip all morning until it is gone. Try this every day for at least two weeks.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.