I first heard about dandelion wine through Ray Bradbury's remarkable book about being a boy in a small Illinois town during the summer of 1928. Dandelion Wine tells stories of happiness machines and bottles of air from places all around the world carted through the night by a strange peddler, so it was easy to imagine this enticing sounding drink as just another marvel spun from the brain of a science fiction writer.
My grandmother, Deborah German, confirmed the very real existence of this beverage during a summer visit to my Grammy Snyder's farm in eastern Pennsylvania. My great grandmother was in the last few months of her life, her memory going, and my grandmother had moved into the old farm house to take care of her mom, Thelma Snyder, a lady who wore nylons even in the summer and cracked Japanese beetles in half with her thumbnail. I know now this must have been a hard time in my grandmother's life and that it must have been some kind of comfort to have her daughter and granddaughter sitting around the table with her. She proudly poured my mother and I a small glass of the golden wine she had made. I don't have many memories from this time of my life at the farm, but this is a vivid one. I could taste the alcohol of course, but the flavors of summer, of fields, of grass, of nectar overwhelmed any distaste I might have had for "grown up" drinks at the the time.
It was years later before I made my own, and I'm not sure what exactly prompted the decision to bag and bottle the cheerful weed, but I know it came out of a conversation with Justin Warren about Ray Bradbury's book. We had been working on The Chicago Mammals's Dream Journal of Dr. Jekyll and had connected over a mutual love of the book somewhere between putting on age make up and tuning violins for the late night show. A few weeks after the show closed, we walked out to a field of dandelions, collected a hearty amount and sat around my kitchen table, splitting the buds open one by one in a method not unlike Grammy Snyder's beetle rampages. Our thumb nails turned black as the milk oxidized on our skin. 8 months later we uncorked our work in my living room as winter winds howled outside.
It was exactly as Ray Bradbury described. Summer on the tongue, summer in a glass. It's a sentimental drink, of course. Incredibly labor intensive, you cannot do it alone. Two people might work all day for a yield of 5 bottles of wine. For this reason, you will never see it in a store, just as you will never find my Aunt Dorris's hickory nut cake anywhere but in her kitchen. There are some flavors that will never be cost effective to cultivate in everyday recipes. Making dandelion wine is fueled in part by the wonderful poetry of Bradbury's words, but mostly by the people who are eager to muddy their knees in a field, sit around a kitchen table brushing away a tiny ant here and there while they patiently and gently preserve summer. To honor the many hours of work over the years, I pour a sip from the previous year's batch into the new one so that each new bottle of wine has more parents than the one that came before. The collective labor of many hands grows with each season of wine, from Justin, to Kyle, to Polly, to Will and now to Jesse.
As I type I can hear the bubbles rising through the airlock as this year's batch ferments. In a few weeks, I'll bottle it and put it in my parents' basement to stay cool while we forget it's there during the hot brief months of summer.
Aunt Dorris's Dandelion Wine Recipe
- 2 qt flower (no stems, leaves of green casing)
- 1 gallon of water
- 3 slices of orange
- 3 slices of lemon
- 3 pounds of sugar
- 1/4 cup yeast (I use one packet of champagne yeast)
Separate petals from the green casing. Simmer petals in water for 1 hour, do not boil. Cool and stream through cloth to remove petals. Add orange, lemon and sugar and boil hard for 20 min. Cool. Add yeast, stir well. More to fermentation vessel. When airlock stops bubbling, bottle. Wait a year before drinking.