“Wild Turkey.” Auntie Harriet held her hand to her throat and repeated herself. “Wild Turkey. I need a shot of Wild Turkey.”
At one of our recent holiday dinners, Sharon Banister shared her freshly baked spicy sugar cookies. They were wonderful – complex and sophisticated, spicy and gingery. As I bit into a second one, I was reminded of Auntie Harriet and her Wild Turkey requests. Quite often, while working in the Imperial Dynasty restaurant, whenever she had a frog in her throat, a tickle up her nose, or the need to jolt her senses, Auntie Harriet went into the bar and asked for a shot of Wild Turkey. When I was a young teen and worked at the restaurant as a pantry/bus worker, she occasionally sent me to pick up her order.
I am sure I could write volumes on what it was like to – in part – grow up in the Imperial Dynasty bar, but for now what I’ll write is that at that particular age, I was intrigued by all the different shapes, colors, and designs of the liquor bottles on the shelves. There was the blue and white Vandermint liqueur bottle with the windmill, placed on the bottom shelf under the cash register. On the opposite side of that shelf was the tall, thin bottle of Galliano, and next to it was a bottle of Chartreuse, which seemed incredibly green to me.
When I reached legal age and could actually sit at the Imperial Dynasty bar, I pointed to a bottle that wasn’t particularly interesting looking. Its contents intrigued me. Ginger brandy. And I liked it. It wasn’t my go-to adult beverage, though I did go through a champagne and crème de cassis phase. Like Auntie Harriet, I had my “medicinal go-to” and it was ginger brandy. When I was at work and my throat was scratchy, or my nose runny, or my head muddled, I ordered a sip or two. As time went on, Auntie Harriet’s Wild Turkey became my choice. Ginger brandy faded away and I’d forgotten all about it until I tasted Sharon’s cookie, which made me think of all the ways ginger is used medicinally and as a spice. Then other memories Wild Turkey and ginger brandy tumbled in. Finally those refined into details about the powers and uses of ginger.
Ginger, or more precisely, ginger root, is a rhizome of a flowering plant that belongs to the small subfamily of spices that also incudes turmeric and cardamom seeds and is native to southern Asia. Its name comes more recently from the mid-14th century English’s “gingiver,” but ginger dates back over 3,000 years with roots roots in a Sanskrit word “srngaveram,” which means “horn-shaped,” a reference to the root’s natural shape.
Chinese have been touting the merits of ginger since 600 B.C., both as a spice and as a medicinal food. Ginger is one of the “ancient spices of Chinese cooking,” along with scallions, garlic, cinnamon, and red pepper. Used alone or in combination, fresh ginger, garlic and scallion are what the food writer Yan-kit So refers to as the Chinese “kitchen trinity.”
Ginger has always been noted for its digestive properties in Chinese cuisine, and it is said that Confucius celebrated its healing powers and refused to have a meal without it. Ginger’s other medicinal attributes include its ability to reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, thin the blood, soothe the intestines, and ward off the common cold. It has also been said to do wonders for one’s sexual and gustatory appetites.
As a kitchen spice, when the ginger root is young, it’s juicy and fleshy, often pickled in vinegar or sherry and eaten as a snack. Ginger tea is made by steeping the root in boiling water. It can even be made into wine when fermented with raisins and fortified with brandy. The most common form of ginger is ground ginger, also known as powdered ginger. Left to age, dried ginger is turned into a powder, which is most often used as an ingredient in gingerbread, cookies, crackers, and cakes. While most ground ginger is the most suitable form for baking, it is also used in savory dishes as well.
Whether whole, sliced, ground into a powder, pickled or candied, ginger’s fragrance and flavor gives a depth of flavor to many a recipe. Sharon’s cookies are redolent of pepper and ginger. As she suggested we dipped our cookies in our wine, which added another layer of flavor. Next time we’re going to try dipping the cookies in a nice port. Or maybe ginger brandy. Or Wild Turkey.