Fire Cider As Resistance: For Immunity and the Community
By Lottie Spady
‘Fire cider’ is the name given to an apple cider vinegar-based, spicy-sweet tonic that helps decongest a stuffy nose, quiets a cough, warms up the chills, and gives the immune system a supportive boost to aid the body in healing from a cold or flu bug. Made with garlic, ginger, lemons, and other common kitchen herbs and spices, fire cider is a relatively inexpensive yet potent brew that can increase our resistance to illness.
This past fall, through a series of dinners, workshops, camp-overs and other community events, fire cider was put in the hands of over 90 people here in the Detroit area. Organizations such as Force Detroit, D-Town Farm and Hazon Detroit allowed me to come in and demonstrate how to make this traditional home remedy. Each participant assembled their own pint-size jar full of the humble ingredients that comprise a basic fire cider, with instructions to take it home and let it steep for at least four weeks. The hope is for this folk medicine to become a part of every families’ medicine chest as a way to stay well over the winter cold and flu season, and in doing so, continue the tradition.
Benefits of Fire Cider by ingredient:
Apple Cider Vinegar — a digestive aid, also fights bacteria and viruses.
Horseradish — helps alleviate sinus congestion and headaches.
Ginger — helps with digestion, infections and nausea.
Garlic —has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties.
Onion — has similar properties to garlic but is also great for preventing (or recovering from!) colds and the flu.
Lemon – Vitamin C, crucial to a functional immune system
Cayenne Pepper — helps move blood through your cardiovascular system. Blood circulation = healing.
Raw Honey — soothes inflamed tissues, suppresses cough, anti-bacterial.
Recently, fire cider has come to be associated with a type of struggle that is probably as old as vinegar itself; that of the grassroots community standing up to profit-seeking entities that want to make off with our intellectual property, traditions, history, and narratives. Believed to be more powerful, they spin our stories and name themselves as the inventors or discoverers of the common people’s possessions or practices. They often go on to capitalize and profit from them, never citing or crediting the actual history from which they obtained the information. Fire cider has become an excellent example of this form of medicinal co-optation and also, thankfully, that of successful community resistance.
In 2012, a commercial herbal products company decided to add fire cider to its list of products for sale to its customers. This was nothing strange, in and of itself. After all, from the backwoods and mountains to the inner city and urban neighborhoods, herbalists have been making fire cider, sharing it and selling it for decades. What was different (but not really different) about this company’s approach was that they thought it would be a good idea to trademark the name ‘fire cider.’
In 2014, after becoming aware of the trademark, herbalist Rosemary Gladstar came forward to dispute the trademark, referring to her many herbal curricula and books dating back to the 1970’s that cite the term ‘fire cider.’ Gladstar, a very well known and respected author and herbalist, stated “I created fire cider to describe this spicy apple cider vinegar recipe. I have it in my copyrighted books, and I have shared it freely for the last 35 years. It has been widely used by natural product companies and by the herbal community,” as well as on the FreeFireCider.com website.
Although this company claimed they meant no harm (they say they just wanted to “protect the name from being taken by large corporations”), they refused to accept the community herbalists’ initial offers to band together to protect the name of fire cider under the claim that it was free and open to use by the public. Not only did they refuse to become a part of a more grassroots effort to protect the name ‘fire cider,’ they also created a website named Firecider.com, a Facebook page named Fire Cider, Instagram and Twitter accounts named ‘Fire Cider’ and they made every attempt to control the narrative about fire cider by creating and publicizing their own origin story for fire cider.1 When presented with evidence of the common practice of using the term ‘fire cider,’ the company still refused to lift the trademark. In fact they sent cease-and-desist letters to over thirty fire cider producers to inform them that they had to stop using the name ‘fire cider.’ They sued four of these producers as well.
At this time, as other community herbalists became aware of the ruckus that was taking place, demonstrations and protests began to occur in a variety of ways. Folks were openly boycotting any retail outlets that stocked this company’s brand of fire cider, there was a petition on Change.org that garnered over 12,000 signatures in support of freeing the term ‘fire cider,’ and over 200 companies nationwide signed on to support the campaign to remove trademark restrictions from the term ‘fire cider.’ There were hundreds of phone calls and letters sent to the company as well. Perhaps one of the most powerful and empowering things that happened was the fire cider-making. Fire cider parties began happening all across the nation, recipes were traded and passed and posted and blogged about, and everyone talked about how beneficial fire cider is for the people.
Later in 2014, three herbalists, who became known as ‘The Fire Cider 3,’ filed an official cancellation petition with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. In turn, the company sued them in 2015 for trademark infringement and boycott damages to the tune of $100,000. This move stalled the cancellation petition and pushed the case to federal court. The damages lawsuit was thrown out but a 2017 trial date was set for the trademark infringement charges against the Fire Cider 3. The Fire Cider 3, with the help of the herbalist community and many other supporters, decided to respond by fighting the lawsuit that was brought against them. Finally, in August of 2019 a judge ruled in favor of ‘fire cider’ as a generic term.2
This historic, precedent-setting case is important. Allowing the trademarking of herbs, herbal terms, recipes, and products takes tradition away from the teachers, small businesses, and the people in general. Allowing corporations to own words and terms that were previously accessible to the public can contribute to the erasure of the contributions and history of indigenous cultures and civilizations, and the hard work of people today. In addition to the trademark and patent systems, narrative co-optation is another tool by which our work is often lifted from our hands, reshaped and repurposed to maintain status quo processes or operations. Co-optation works to keep things exactly the same, if not worse, for the community involved.
This case is what prompted my interest and enthusiasm around hosting what I have now come to call “fire cider builds”. This is an excellent form of community resistance, talking about this case while teaching community members how to make the tonic for their families. It is also a good reference for unpacking other examples of narrative co-optation by government, corporations, the mainstream media or any entities that do not have a justice framework nor have the community’s best interest at heart.
Gather together a group of friends, family, co-workers or the block club. Chop some onions, dice some garlic, and shred some horseradish. Leave their ears aglow with the story about how the fire cider got free. Contribute to building the resistance of the body while participating in the resistance of the movement toward community health. This approach to do-it-yourself community health is exciting and fun. The second of February has even been marked as World Fire Cider day, making it a perfect time to host a gathering (although I prefer to get my fire cider done in the fall so that it’s ready when the cold winds start to blow).
Below is a basic recipe for fire cider as well as some suggestions for creative add ins. There are as many variations of fire cider as there are individuals who make it. So get creative! Make a fire cider hot toddy, or just enjoy it by the shot glass or the spoonful. Fire cider can be used for a number of things in addition to boosting the immune system. It makes a great salad dressing or marinade. Add it to your greens, soups, and stews while cooking. Reduce to a sauce or glaze for roasted meats or vegetables.
Basic Fire Cider Recipe (Makes one quart):
- 1/2 cup fresh grated ginger root
- 1/2 cup freshly grated horseradish root
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 10 cloves of garlic, crushed or chopped
- 2 – 4 cayenne peppers, chopped (or 1 -2 tsp red pepper flakes)
- 1 lemon, sliced
- organic apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup raw honey, or to taste
Put ginger, horseradish, onion, garlic, cayenne pepper and lemon into quart-sized glass jar. Pour apple cider vinegar in the jar until all the ingredients are fully covered and the vinegar reaches the top of the jar. (You want to be sure all the ingredients are covered to prevent spoilage.) Use a piece of wax paper under the lid to keep the vinegar from touching the metal, or use a plastic lid if you have one. Shake jar to combine all the ingredients and store in a dark, cool place for 4-6 weeks. After one month, use a mesh strainer or cheesecloth to strain, and pour the infused vinegar into a clean jar. Add honey to the vinegar and stir until incorporated. Taste your fire cider and add more honey if needed until you reach your desired sweetness. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator or in a cool, dark place. Drink 1-2 Tablespoons when needed.
Suggestions for Add-Ins:
Cinnamon sticks, rosemary, thyme, turmeric powder or freshly grated turmeric root, burdock root, oranges, limes, pomegranate seeds, dried hibiscus flowers, dried dandelion leaf and root, dried astragalus root, rose hips and lemon grass.
Lottie V. Spady is a practicing herbalist, wild-crafter and community educator working at the intersection of media justice, food justice, environmental justice, community health, and civic engagement. She has been a Detroit activist for the past fifteen years developing programs, teaching workshops, and working specifically with children, teens and adults to promote, educate, and empower communities. She blogs about it at Earthseed Detroit.
- The Battle for the One, True ‘Fire Cider’ https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/16/style/fire-cider-herbalist-shire-city.html
- Free Fire Cider website https://freefirecider.com/