Several years ago I learned one startling fact about modern medicine. Many, many clinical trials of drugs commonly prescribed to women are conducted with all male subjects and approved for sale without ever being trialed with women. Coming to know this was one small piece of the puzzle in my slowly learning how to take back the care and healing of my body for myself; a journey that began with reclaiming more holistic, empowering approaches to pregnancy & childbirth and continues today in how I function as a healer for myself, my family, & the world around me. Modern medicine has its place & I do seek it out when I need it. But more often than not, when disease or injury put in an appearance under my roof, healing rests in my own hands & my relationship with the healing plants of the earth.
One of the most powerful winter tonics & cold/flu remedies I keep in my healing repertoire is a feisty little brew called fire cider. Variations on the apple cider vinegar based tonic pop up all over the world in folk medicine with versions attributed to Hippocrates & found in medieval plague remedies colorfully named “four thieves vinegar.” There’s also a 1950s version from one Dr. Jarvis of Vermont . But here in the US, it became a popular part of a modern American herbalists’ seasonal workings primarily thanks to Rosemary Gladstar who began teaching & sharing it with her students & readers in the 1980s via her written work and classes provided through her California School for Herbal Studies.
In 2014, fire cider got controversial. A company in Massachusetts trademarked the name and began policing smaller home-based producers selling fire cider on Etsy. The backlash was strong with herbalists across the country objecting to the entire concept of trademarking traditional folk remedies. The issue remains unresolved at the moment and the movement to protect the fire cider tradition continues to oppose the trademark. The entire situation echoes an ancient pattern of patriarchal systems attempting to co-opt women’s ways of healing. In addition to donating to the cause, one of the best ways to contribute to the Free Fire Cider movement is to learn to make fire cider for yourself.
As with most folk remedies, ask ten people how they make theirs and you’ll probably get at least a dozen different answers, but the basic recipe for fire cider involves chopping & grating onion, garlic, horseradish root, ginger root, lemon, & hot chili peppers. These are all plopped in a glass container and completely covered with apple cider vinegar. Then the mixture is sealed and left to soak for a month. (Older versions suggest it ought to be buried in the earth for a full lunar cycle.) At the end of the month, the mixture is strained & the solids discarded. Honey is added to taste and there you have it, a winter tonic and a fast acting cold & flu remedy right on your counter top.
This year I decided to ritualize the process and add a few extra powerful ingredients to the mix: laughter, love, friendship, women’s ways of healing, & the Divine Feminine in action. I put out the call for interested friends, asking who might be up for a little Fire Cider Brew-haha. We chose a date that worked for us and planned a get together. I shopped for the base recipe ingredients for everyone, inviting my Brew-haha attendees to bring any extras they would like to use to customize their own batches.
Everyone was responsible for bringing their own glass containers, extra knives & graters, cutting boards, & whatever other ingredients they’d like to add. I always include rosemary, thyme, & turmeric in my recipe, so I made sure those were on hand. By the time all the ingredients were assembled on the day we gathered, we had quite the array: hawthorn berries, cardamom pods, star anise, black peppercorns, rosehips, hibiscus, burdock root, oranges, apples, pomegranate seeds, sage, & more all laid out on the table in their beautiful glory.
I also invited my guests to help me build a community altar. Community altars are something I love to build. They are the sacred center of my Witch’s Nights In, for example. My community altars have a clear theme or intention, but are interfaith by nature. Every attendee can chose whether or not to contribute to building them. What they bring is entirely up to them. I just ask them to meditate on the theme or intention of the gathering and bring whatever represents their spiritual reflections on that theme. Our community altar for my Fire Cider Brew-haha was stunning. Before we began our work, we gathered in front of it, rang a singing bowl, breathed into our combined intention to create healing for ourselves, our families, our communities, and the world.
And then we got down to business– peeling, chopping, grating, slicing, laughing, sharing, crying, breathing, living, loving, & healing our way through the crafting of this firey brew. To my absolute delight, my two daughters asked if they could join in at the last minute. Friends handed them extra glass jars, spare knives or graters, & folded them into our circle of healing work. They each made their very own batch for the first time. (For a great guide to fire cider designed especially for young herbalists, check out Herbal Roots’ Fire Cider eBook.)
Tonight, I am bottling the batches of fire cider I’ve watched over for the last month, shaking them daily and infusing them with love & healing. As I do so, I think about how we often find ourselves struggling with all the oppression, the violence, the hatred, the wounding, the darkness we feel called to stand against. It can wear you down, leave you feeling hopeless, & actually make you sick. It can seem like just too much, like maybe the struggle is impossible & maybe nothing you’re doing, no matter how hard you’re working, will create the changes you’re fighting for so desperately.
In those moments, I believe it is important to remember that even small, handcrafted acts of liberation at your own hearth can contribute to the larger pool of love & healing in the world. Gather a few friends, create an altar dedicated to the healing power of the flame, let love, laughter, & the colorful gifts of the earth liberate your spirit just that much more.
Let a little Fire Cider Brew-haha restore & rekindle your strength to stand against the world’s darkness this winter.
Let healing begin with your own two hands.
Kate Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is a somewhat nomadic American, homeschooling her children with the world as their classroom. She holds a BA from Tulane University, where she studied Economics, International Relations, & Religious Traditions. Kate volunteered as a presenter for monthly Red Tents and semi-annual women’s retreats before relocating overseas for several years where she hosted seasonal women’s gatherings, facilitated labyrinth rituals, and led workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. She recently returned to the US and is breathing into the potential of this new chapter of her life.