If I could send smells across the ethers of the internet, the first smell I’d send you would be sassafras. How can one even begin to describe how fantastic it is? Deeply spicy with a sweet earthyness and that characteristic undertone of camphor and wintergreen…there is just nothing else like it. I love the smell of it so very much, that I would even venture so far to say that if I could smell just one thing for the rest of my life, sassafras would be it. In other words, I am a big sassafras fan.
Of course, when one thinks of sassafras, the first thing that comes to mind is root beer. But you would be mistaken in believing that the smell and taste associated with modern versions of this old rooty beverage is still derived from sassafras. Indeed, since 1976, sassafras and any extracts there-of have been banned from food and cosmetic use in the US, based upon a study showing that mice practically drowned in safrole, an aromatic constituent found in sassafras, showed increased incidences of liver cancer (go figure). Even though the toxic metabolite produced in the mouse’s metabolism is not produced by humans, and there is no reason to think that sassafras poses anymore risk to our health than say, orange juice – we are forced to put up with sassafras free root-beer, filled with a slew of artificial flavors designed to imitate sassafras that are probably a good deal more harmful to our health than sassafras itself ever could be.
Ok, I’m taking a deep breath and stepping down off my soap box now. But I like sassafras, and I miss the old style root beers – the kind that really were made of “roots” (not just sugar and artificial color) and the kind that had a medicinal as well as enjoyable purpose. Because, once upon a time, root beer was (I’m pounding my fist on the table here for effect) made from actual roots – spicy, pungent and bitter-tasting roots – roots that were called wonderful things like “blood cleansers” and “tonics.” That is the kind of root beer that I’d like to drink! So, I’m protesting against sassafras-free root beer and I’m protesting against root-free root beer and I’m making my very own – which is (you guessed it) packed full of both – a really rooty root beer.
Now before I share my recipe with you, I want to take a moment to talk about roots, that old concept of “blood cleansing” and spring – and how they all relate, because I think they each come together in a really fascinating way. You see, I am a firm believer that a large part of the medicine found in plants is their ability to help us adapt to our environment. Plants, unlike ourselves, base their life cycles entirely upon seasonal and environmental influences, responding to changes in light and temperature, moisture, etc. By consuming the plants that grow around us, we give ourselves exactly the type of support we need for adapting to our own environment.
Roots are a great example of this concept, because their medicinal effects are quite different from one season to the next. In the fall, for example, when the plant’s resources are being directed to the root for storage, roots tend to have a more nourishing and building effect. Indeed, studies suggest that dandelion and burdock roots harvested in the fall contain far more inulin – the starchy component of the plant, than do the spring roots. Spring roots, however, are adapted for the spring – encompassing that upwards/outwards movement of energy happening in the plant (and in us) at that time. As the plant’s food storage is utilized for growth, bitter and aromatic compounds tend to become more concentrated, giving the root a more bitter or pungent flavor and a more stimulating effect – helping to direct our own energy outwards in preparation for warmer, more active days.
So how does this all relate back to “blood cleansing”? Well, cleansing the blood was seen as a necessary spring ritual in many herbal folk traditions. Impure blood would give rise to symptoms of “heat” – things like rheumatic joint complaints, allergies, rashes, boils and skin eruptions, fevers, etc. Cleansing the blood was really about clearing heat – thought to derive from “toxins” – from the blood, and thereby helping to prevent many of the common maladies induced by the change of seasons and warmer weather. Bitter and pungent tasting roots were enlisted for this task because they stimulate eliminative function – promoting detoxification and elimination of heat-producing “toxins” (ie free radicals, excess hormones, pro-inflammatory compounds, etc) from the body via the feces, urine or sweat – thereby reducing the inflammatory load and clearing away “heat.”.
So let me just really drive my point home and tie this all together: using “blood cleansing” roots to clear heat from the body is all about that spring process of directing our body’s vital energy back outwards – like the roots moving the energy up and into the plant. In winter, we want our blood to be warm. We want to heat our core and, like the plants, direct all our resources – blood and otherwise towards our internal organs so that we can remain vital and withstand the cold temperatures. This is exactly the opposite of what spring requires: spring is warm, the weather is mild and the days require action rather than storage. All that energy and warmth going to the core needs to move back out again. Blood needs to move to the surface where it can be cooled and reduce our core temperature so we can adapt to the warmer weather – just like when we exercise, our skin flushes red with blood which is being cooled at the surface of the body via evaporation of sweat to reduce our temperature. (Interestingly, many roots like sassafras, burdock and sarsaparilla found in traditional root bears are diaphoretics – stimulating blood flow to the skin and enhancing sweat production.) Also, reserves need to be broken down to support the increased activity level, and bitter roots like dandelion and burdock found in root beer stimulate metabolism and digestive function. Lastly, as we move from a storage to an activity phase, we can let go of unnecessary resources (I like to think of all that protective snow melting away) – – and spring roots stimulate detoxification and elimination via the kidneys, lymphatics, liver and skin. Make sense?
So root beer – real root beer made from actual roots – is just the thing for spring. Here’s a delicious recipe that is extremely easy to make at home which uses lacto-fermentation (or fermentation via beneficial lactobacillus bacteria) to produce carbonation – adding an entirely new dimension of health promoting properties to this yummy traditional beverage in the form of probiotics.
Really Rooty Root Beer
Makes 4 quartz. You will need some kind of sealable bottle for this recipe – I use old swing top beer bottles, but screw top mineral water bottles would also work fine.
For the herb mixture:
- 3 tablespoons (0.40 oz) dried sassafras root
- 2 tablespoons (0.20 oz) dried sarsaparilla root
- 1 thumb sized American ginseng root (organically grown) (0.15 oz)
- 1 tablespoon (0.20 oz) dried dandelion root
- 1 tablespoon (0.30 oz) dried burdock root
- 1 tablespoon (0.10 oz) dried birch bark
- 1 teaspoon (0.02 oz) dried licorice root
- 1 gallon filtered water
- 2/3 cup maple syrup or birch syrup
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- 2 cups yogurt whey (obtained by straining yogurt through a cheesecloth lined strainer into a bowl overnight. The whey collects in the bowl, and you are left with a delicious yogurt curd cheese in the strainer, which you can enjoy like cream cheese!)
- Place the herb mixture into a large pot with the gallon of water.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and let simmer with a cover on for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit, covered for an additional 30 minutes. Check the temperature after 30 minutes with a thermometer. If it has fallen below 100 degrees F, return to heat until the temperature reads 100 degrees.
- Place the maple syrup and molasses into a gallon container (or divide equally between to half-gallon mason jars) and strain the herb mixture into the jar. Stir or cap and shake to dissolve the sugar into the liquid.
- Add the whey to the mixture, seal the jars and place in a warm spot for 2-4 days.
- Strain the mixture into 4 quart sized or 8 pint-sized sealable bottles. The bottles should be quite full, so add water to fill if any of your bottles come up short. Return to a warm place for another 2-3 days.
- Transfer your bottles to the fridge and enjoy at leisure. Do be cautious when you open the bottles, as they likely will have built up a good amount of carbonation, and may bubble over. For this reason, I tend to open mine outdoors, with a glass ready to catch the overflow so that I don’t lose the bottle to its carbonation.