This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 15, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Most, if not all, general stores in the 1920’s and 1930’s made many of the things they sold, — such as cornmeal, vinegar, pickled boiled eggs, etc. Before she married my father, my mother worked at such a store on Saturdays (plowed and picked cotton the rest of the week on her parents’ farm). She used to say that working at that store taught her a lot of things, like how to make your own vinegar from apple cider (which you made from apple peelings, cores, etc.).
Used today, mainly for culinary purposes, vinegar in the early 1900’s was used in a variety of ways other than just as a preservative in canning. It was used as an antibiotic, a cleansing agent or detergent, and as medicinal treatments. Not only was it used for the treatment of minor wounds, poison ivy, jelly fish stings, but also for dropsy, croup, stomach-ache, and coughs. Vinegar was known and used as early as 3000 B. C. by the Babylonians and the Egyptians for the same purposes.
In Asia, vinegar was made from fermented rice; in India, from coconuts and cane, in the Middle East, from figs and dates, and in the United States, (most commonly) apple cider. Distilled vinegar would later be made by the oxidation of distilled alcohol. For vinegar to be vinegar, it must be at least 4 percent acetic acid, though distilled vinegar is often as high as 10 percent. Apple cider vinegar was usually 6 percent.
The various uses of vinegar, whether culinary or medicinal, obviously called for different percentages of acetic acid.
Even though as a child my mother used to describe to me how they had made vinegar from apple juice, and even though she made very sweet homemade wine regularly from mustang grapes, I never quite grasped the idea of where vinegar came from, as she was by then buying vinegar from the grocery store, which had replaced the general store. Had I known the origin of the word “vinegar,” I probably would have figured it out. Our English word “vinegar” was derived from the Old French word “vinaigre,” which literally meant “sour wine.” But what kid is into etymology when they are nine or ten, even one who loved dictionaries?
I finally came to understand the connection between vinegar and wine after an incident occurred during the time I was courting my wife.
My wife’s parents were Old South formal, especially when it came to the evening meal, to which I was invited as a “gentleman friend” of their daughter. Trying to impress the family of my beautiful lady friend, I bought a very expensive bottle of German dry white wine. I thought sophisticated people liked dry wine, but this was very dry wine.
Seated around an elegant dining room table sat her mother and father, her prim and proper aunt, her elderly grandmother, my lady friend, and I, the special guest. Her mother asked their maid to pour the special wine that “Peggy’s gentleman friend” had so graciously given them. The wine was poured into exquisite crystal wine glasses. A toast was proposed by the young lady’s father. Each of us took a sip.
“Bleeh!” My wife’s grandmother spat out her sip of wine. “This tastes like vinegar!”
“Mother Davis!” Peggy’s mother exclaimed with a gasp, “I am shocked at you!” It did indeed taste like vinegar, and it was so funny to me I almost fell out of my chair laughing, even though my future mother-in-law was mortified. The formal dinner resumed as though nothing happened, my future wife and I grinning at each other.
And that’s how I really learned the connection between wine and vinegar. “Vinaigre.” “Sour wine.” In the years that followed, I taught myself to like dry wines, but not that dry, no doubt as an antidote to my mother’s ultra-sweet mustang grape wine. And I learned the lesson from the general store: apple juice turns into hard apple cider which turns into apple cider wine which turns into apple cider vinegar. From apples to vinegar in a month.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher and retired LCMS pastor, and author of two books, Open Prairies and It Must Be the Noodles.