In Finland, they take their saunas seriously. Visualize: A rustic wooden sauna nestled on the edge of a remote mountain lake, the silence intense across the wilderness, the interior heated to 80 degrees centigrade, tightly packed with several bearded, naked Finns. Suddenly, one chap grabs a fresh birch twig from a handy bucket and whips the guy in from of him on the back, creating intricate patterns of welts and releasing the wafting odor of the forest. Then another Finn nonchalantly tosses a wooden ladle of water onto the glowing hot rocks, releasing a powerful jolt of intensely steamy heat that, if you're sitting on the top bench, takes your breath away, opens your pores wide, and creates exhilarating and possibly disturbing palpitations in your chest.
Then - when the heat and humidity reach an absolute peak, near the boiling point of water, when there is absolutely no way to stand it for one second longer - they throw open the door and scurry out willy nilly, gloriously nude, their feet and legs plunging deep into the pristine snow, the steam rising as they rush out onto the frozen sheet of ice headed for the perfectly round hole they had laboriously sawed out beforehand, diving headfirst into the incredibly cold water below the surface, splashing around and damn near drowning, then being pulled back out of the water pink as pink can be, then rushing back to the welcoming door of the sauna to repeat the cycle again and again and again...
Now that's a sauna.
I am a long-time fan of steam baths and saunas, although I historically relied on college locker rooms, YMCAs, and cheap health clubs. Since coming to the Philippines, however, my sauna options have been circumscribed by economic constraints and the high cost of five-star hotels and elite clubs. And believe me, my often aching back has sorely missed the occasional retreat into the mists of steamily heated cubicles.
Thus, I was thrilled to discover recently that an entrepreneurial couple in our village (predictably, an ex-pat married to a Filipina) had set up a small New Age clinic/spa right down the street, replete with homeopathy, acupuncture, and Qi Gong lessons. And, gloriously, a Havari medical grade sauna imported direct from Finland situated in the back yard, featuring exquisite hand craftsmanship in birch wood, glowing hot coals, and an attached ice cold shower. No frozen mountain lake or foot-deep snow, this being Manila and all, but still a welcome oasis for rest and relaxation in this stressful, dirty, and noisy urban jungle.
Not surprisingly, I have now taken to regular Friday afternoon saunas (minus the birch whippings), followed by heavy duty deep tissue massages. While indulging in this mild form of escapism, I close my eyes and let my mind drift wherever the notions might lead. Yesterday's sweaty session was typical, featuring internal musings about my roots, some nostalgic introspection about my ancestors, and unanswered questions about the contradictions of life for an exile in the Far East.
So blame the Finns for the following random reflection, which doesn't have much to do with the Republic of the Philippines but does have to do with what extreme heat and humidity juxtaposed with extreme fatigue can do to the human mind on a Friday afternoon in modern day Manila.
As chronicled elsewhere in the Pearl archive (see Occidential Lamentations, Oriental Ruminations), I come from American hillbilly stock, a cultural origin point which has long been stereotyped and ridiculed. Think 'Lil Abner, Ma and Pa Kettle, the Beverly Hillbillies, and Hee Haw. The term "hillbilly" came into use early in the 20th century (first mention was apparently in the 1902 Dictionary of American English), with the men being portrayed as shiftless rifle-toting losers smoking a corncob pipe and spitting tobacco and the women as voluptuous and brainless baby machines.
Such stereotypes are, as are most, unfounded. Indeed, I consider my roots a badge of honor and greatly appreciate the genes that have helped propel where I am today.
Where exactly did hillbillies come from?
The story starts in the early 1600s, when England created what was basically a large plantation in Northern Ireland, pushing out the native Irish, and opening the area up for settlement by "true Englishmen". But it was remote territory, and not very many Brits were up to the hardships. Instead, the open settlement policy attracted poor people from the Scottish lowlands. It's only 30 miles from the lower coast of Scotland to the northern coast of Ireland and thousands made the move in search of a better life.
The Scots had strong personalities and deep religious convictions, being stout Presbyterians. After a few generations, they weren't really Scots anymore. But they weren't Irish either - they were Ulster Scots, later to be called Scotch-Irish. One of their defining traits was stubbornness and a dislike of externally imposed authority.
Alcoholic beverages of a certain sort have a lot to do with the story as well. Although the English preferred ale, the Scotch-Irish preferred distilled spirits, which they made themselves from barley in small stills (poteens, meaning literally "little pots"). Before long, however, the English themselves developed a taste for gin, leading to great concern by the Crown for the public welfare. The government imposed ever-steeper excise taxes, more out of a desire to stop the sinning than to raise revenues.
Of course, like all such efforts, the policies failed. Indeed, the heavier they made the tax the more illicit distilling took place. In the poor areas of Ulster settled by the Scotch, there was virtually no allegiance to the English crown, with the local clans being infinitely more important in the social order. The Scotch-Irish who distilled the best liquor located their poteens in the rugged mountains of Connemara, in areas which were sometimes impossible and always hazardous for the authorities to raid.
The combination of English pressure to reject their religion and accept the Church of England - unthinkable! - and the despicable excise taxes fueled a mass exodus to the New World during the early to mid 18th century, running right up to the American Revolution. Most of the Scotch-Irish came in through Pennsylvania, with many soon migrating south into Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, the Carolinas, and the Appalachian mountains. Some eventually made their way through the Cumberland Gap to the verdant hills of Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky and (my roots) into the hill country of Southern Indiana.
Many of the Scotch-Irish, whom Horace Kephart calls "Our Southern Highlanders" in his classic work(1), preferred to settle in the more remote mountainous areas, places that reminded them of Ireland and that were more or less insulated from outside authorities. Many settled in the Smoky Mountains, including a number of my own forefathers. The Smokies were like the rugged mountains of Connemara, but wilder and more remote. Per Kephart: "Accustomed to plenty of hard knocks at home, they took to the rough fare and Indian wars of our border as naturally as ducks to water. They brought with them, too, and undying hatred of excise laws and a spirit of unhesitating resistance to any authority that sought to enforce such laws."
It was a hardscrabble life and cash was hard to come by. Most trade was in barter, but you still had to raise enough money to pay taxes and purchase store-bought necessities like sugar, calico, and gunpowder. Corn, the primary crop, was too bulky to transport through the mountains to market. But corn could be transformed into corn liquor, which was far more portable and one of the few ways the highlanders had of making money. Not surprisingly, there was a still on most every farm. When transported out of the mountains to town markets, the liquor could be sold cheaper than New England rum - at least as long as there was no excise tax.
But the American authorities, after the Revolution, imposed taxes that reminded the highlanders of the sins of the British. A law passed in 1791 imposed a whiskey tax of 9-11 cents per proof gallon, nearly bringing on civil war. Although later repealed when Jefferson was elected in 1800, the government imposed excise taxes again during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. In the early twentieth century, the federal authorities (the "revenuers") expended tremendous energy trying to collect taxes and putting moonshiners out of business.
The transplanted Scotch-Irish of Southern Indiana came directly out of this tradition. In my earlier Occidental-Oriental Pearl, I related how my Grandpa, known as "Ginseng", put his family through the Great Depression largely by digging ginseng (panix trifolia). In earlier generations, traveling peddlers would take ginseng in trade for money, tobacco, coffee, or gunpowder. Grandpa eventually learned how to dry the roots, package them up, and send them off to a faraway medical supply house for transshipment to faraway China.
But there was another important cash crop, that being the distilled form of corn - moonshine whiskey.
Stills in the Brown County hills had to be located by a ready source of running water, the more remote the better. Everybody was always tromping through the woods, and the revenuers themselves were constantly snooping around. The farming families let their hogs and cattle run wild through the woods, and they loved still-slop. They could smell sour mash a long ways off and would inevitably be drawn towards the enticing smell of fermenting corn.
The whole endeavor required a great deal of patience and was labor intensive, including the need to stand guard 24 hours a day to make sure no revenuers or intrusive hogs spoiled the job. Following is about how it works, based on Kephart and some vague memories of stories my grandpa used to tell me while we tromped through the woods.
The first task: To convert the starch of the grain into sugar, something that regular distillers accomplish using malt. Unfortunately, malt is hard to come by in the hills. So the highlander had to place the unground corn in a tub with a hole in the bottom, pour warm water over it and place a hot cloth over the top, then replenish the water continuously for two or three days and nights, however long might be required to get the corn to pop out in sprouts a couple of inches long.
Then you had the tricky task was of convincing a local miller to grind sprouted corn, an act that was just as much against the law as distilling moonshine. Most regular millers wouldn't do it, so farmers with a little money set up their own small mills to grind the sprouted corn into corn meal.
After getting the precious ground meal, the moonshiner would boil it in scalding water to create a mush that would then have to stand for yet another two or three days, leading to "sweet mash." The moonshiner would then add rye malt (if available) to speed the fermentation process, although most of the time nature had to take its painstaking course. Even the yeast that regular distillers use was seldom available, so the mash usually had to stand about 10 days, kept at a uniform temperature, which could be quite a task given the lack of a thermometer. And all under 24 hour a day guard.
This process would, finally, lead to the first batch of "sour mash", more commonly called "wash" by mountain 'shiners. Intoxicating, to be sure, but (per Kephart) "sour enough to make a pig squeal."
To get the final product, the wash goes into a still, a vessel that is always closed off on top and connected to a spiral tube known as the worm. Encasing the worm is a closed jacket that allows cool water to constantly circulate on the outside. Underneath is a wood fire, which slowly heats the mixture and causes the spirits to rise, the vapors being condensed in the cold worm, gradually trickling down into the receiver below.
Drip, drip, drip, until the first distillation is finally obtained.
This first batch, called "singlings," is weak and impure, and must be redistilled to yield "doublings" and then on through several cycles. While regular distillers have scientific instruments, the moonshiner has but a small vial in which he tests the emerging product by eying the bead until it has just the ideal frothy head deemed best based on his own extensive experience. The final step is to run the liquor through a crude charcoal filter to get rid of the fusel oil.
The fruit of the labor is crystal clear moonshine whiskey - referred to variously as corn liquor, popskull, white lightnin', ruckus juice, hillbilly pop, and mule kick. The term "moonshine" has been most widely applied, a term traceable back to England in the 1700s where it referred to work done by the light of the moon.
Final random note: More recent generations have carried on the old bootlegging tradition in the form of growing pot. Indeed, my late brother Paul had, for several years, splendid patches of world class sinsemilla hidden well away in the remotest innards of the Hoosier National Forest, having learned the trade from an experienced agriculturalist from Humboldt County who had journeyed to the hills of Southern Indiana in search of a less high-profile locale than northern California. There are a lot of parallels between the old corn likker still and growing sinse and thousands of hillbillies in places like Kentucky, Tennessee, and Southern Indiana had little trouble making the transition from one illicit activity to the other.
And back to Manila?
During yesterday's hour-and-a-half in and out of the Finnish sauna, alternating cold showers and roasting spells, I reflected on the ironies of my life in the early 21st century, situated firmly in the Orient, the place where Grandpa Ginseng's roots found their market. Where I'm from, most people have only the vaguest notion about Asia, or for that matter of any country outside the good old US of A. The Orient, to the extent that they think of it, is a place you sent your sons to die during wartime, or a place where Uncle Sam dispatches gunboats every decade or so to counteract threats to peace, justice, and the American way, whether that take the form of Japanese imperialism, Indonesian strongmen, or the Red Menace.
Well... this particular Pearl has rambled off into space, mostly to places far from the Philippines. If you perchance stumbled across this piece expecting commentary on this amazing archipelago, please visit the main index where you'll find plenty of Pearls focusing on this corner of the potato patch
But this Pearl, dedicated to my Grandpa Ginseng, is what it is. Anyway, there are some logical links to the Philippines, at least if you use your imagination. For example, I bet Grandpa would have liked local products like lambanog, a potent brew derived from the coconut palm flower. And he would have been intrigued by a visit to Binondo (Chinatown), where he would have seen shop after shop of old Chinese merchants selling ginseng root and other medicinal curatives quite familiar to him. But I must admit I have no idea how he would have reacted to the Finnish sauna experience or what his reaction would have been to those hairy naked Finns jumping in that hole in the ice.
(1) Horace Kephart, Our Southern Highlanders.: A Narrative of Adventure in the Southern Appalachians and a Study of Life Among the Mountaineers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976, 1984. Originally published 1913.
(2) The expression "bootlegging" originated in colonial America, apparently related to selling liquor to American Indians, which was of course strictly against the law. The colonists who engaged in the illicit trade concealed the booze in the top of their boots and covered the bottles with their legs, hence "bootlegger"; and...
(3) ridge runners, referring to the brave young men who, during Prohibition, drove stripped down Ford sedans laden with jugs of 'shine along the ridges on top of the hills, moving the cash product from the remote hollers where it was distilled to the cities where it was sold. Many of the pioneering stock car drivers got their start as ridge runners, or more properly "Tennessee Ridge Runners."