I was twenty-three, sitting at the bar at Louis Armstrong International, waiting for a bus to come and pick me up to take me to Mississippi. I was there with Habitat for Humanity, post-Katrina, to take part in a blitz of home-building. The goal was 25 houses built, from empty slab to completely enclosed, in one week. Rumor had it that the shelter where we were going to stay was run by Lutherans, and dry, and that any poor sop who wasn’t back by lights out would be forced to spend the night on the streets. So I was enjoying a carefree drink while I could, before heading into a week of building houses in coastal Mississippi in May without the benefit of cold beer.
As I was sitting there chatting with another doomed soul on the same excursion, a man in a wifebeater sat down next to me. He was in his mid-thirties, maybe, with jet black hair and a wiry build. Had the air of a working man. Now the bar was mostly empty, but he decided to occupy the stool directly on my right. Normally, it wouldn’t have been a cause for much alarm, except that it soon became apparent this guy was working on a monster head cold. He snorted what seemed an outrageous glob of phlegm, swallowing it loudly – a scant foot from my ear.
Nothing disgusts me like the sound of sucking nastiness accompanying a good nasal clearing. Noticing that I was dry-heaving a little, he turned to me apologetically.
“Aw, hey dere…sorry bout dis col’, brudda,” he drawled in a nearly incomprehensible patois, thickened further by congested snot.
“No problem, man, really,” I lied. Every instinct compelled me to run, though I had a tab going. But I felt bad. He seemed pleasant. To make amends and show him I still considered him a human being instead of a walking sack of diseased mucus, I asked him where he was headed.
“Oh, I was jus drivin’ by, gon t’do some fishin’ too-day but I felt so bad, yeah? So I stop here, you know.” Snoort.
“You stopped… here?”
With that he called over the bartender and gave her some instructions.
- A shot of almost hot whiskey
- 2 teaspoons of honey
- A wedge of lemon
She placed it all in front of him, warmed whiskey in a short glass, and he added the honey to it. He stirred it til it dissolved, then squeezed the lemon into it. With that, he slammed it back.
The change was immediate. His voice cleared, he began breathing through his nose, and his accent became much less impenetrable.
“Dat’s a Cajun[iii] hot-toddy, it’s great for a cold, work every time,” he proclaimed, as I laughed in frank admiration.
All these years later, whenever I am stuffed up or sick, I use that same mixture and it provides a genuine measure of relief. I generally don’t get back in my truck and drive down the road after drinking it, like he did, but you get the point.
While my friend was not drinking a classic hot toddy, the principles are much the same.
The Hot Toddy is a traditional preparation for wet, cold weather of the sort most of the United States has experienced lately (oh, how we despise you, Florida). Its recuperative effects are real, and provide soothing warmth to a sore throat and the alcohol does much to numb a troublesome cough.
Preparation varies from person to person, and region to region. But the general recipe is as follows.
- 1 oz whiskey, brandy, or rum
- 1 Tbsp honey
- ¼ of a lemon (a teaspoon or two of lemon juice)
- 1 cup hot black tea
Prepare the tea – you don’t need instructions for this part, do you? While it steeps, drizzle honey on the bottom of a toddy glass or plain mug. Add the liquor and the lemon juice. If you’ve really got the business, I’d go for dark and syrupy rum like Kraken, which won’t hurt your wallet and will also add flavors of spice and vanilla to the medicine. Once the tea is ready, pour it into the mug and stir it until mixed.
If you’re preparing the hot toddy for a guest, you can garnish with a cinnamon stick, a couple whole cloves, and/or a slice of lemon as you prefer. If you’re alone in your misery, wearing sweatpants and watching daytime television, you may dispense with the garnish altogether.
Sip it slow, letting the warmed alcohol diffuse through the nasal and bronchial passages and do its work. The honey and lemon will tamp down a raw and inflamed throat. Rest up and then get back on the horse.
It is worth noting that the government in its wisdom has encouraged people to avoid the use of alcoholic cold remedies because of the danger of dehydration. If only there was a common sense solution to this quandary. You’ll just have to take your life into your own hands, I suppose.
[i] He used a different word to describe his ethnicity that I, a non-Cajun, should probably not repeat. Certain of my readers may know it. It evokes the posterior of Procyon lotor.
[ii] He said it again! He was really quite free with it.
[iii] At this point it was just ridiculous.