Boilo, the anthracite coal-miner's cure for everything

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
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More than just its throat-soothing, influenza-defeating properties, what my mother likes best about Boilo is the danger. "I found an article that said making Boilo was the number one cause of house fires in the anthracite-coal regions of Pennsylvania in the '30s," she practically bubbles. A simple mixture of oranges, lemons, ginger ale, honey, cinnamon and caraway hit with eye-watering amounts of moonshine (we used Everclear grain alcohol, lacking a still of our own), Boilo is akin to a hot toddy on steroids.

Boilo, known as the anthracite coal miner's cure for anything that ails you, was not a part of my mom's Drexel Hill childhood. She learned about it from her mother's sister, Joan, who recalled her own mother Felicia Ciokajlo (née Swatski) making it with her own homemade ginger ale in Mt. Carmel, around two hours northwest of Philly, the early 1930s. "I've seen several different recipes," my mother related as she juiced orange and lemons for our Boilo project. "Some call for anise, mace or allspice, but I knew my family was poor — they didn't have a car — and they couldn't have afforded spices like that. Moonshine, however, they definitely had."

Intuitive cook that she was, my great-grandmother made her Boilo without a recipe. It was up to my great-aunt Joan to write to her second cousin Joseph Ciokajlo for more information. Joseph passed along a recipe he'd gleaned from a New Philadelphia grandmother that does use lemons — an exotic item in Depression-era Mt. Carmel — but none of the fancy spices my mother finds so unlikely. Despite the name, no boiling happens, as that would evaporate away the microbe-killing booze. As for the danger element, I heartily recommend keeping this project far from open flames, as Everclear or any high-proof alcohol is extremely flammable. Pouring the booze carefully into the pot, my mother looks positively giddy. "Just a lovely mother-daughter afternoon making hooch!" she exclaims, then adds her second-favorite quote from her stash of Boilo lore. "At this point in the recipe, the Boilo may explode."

Nazdrowie to that.

Boilo Recipe

(from "a New Philadelphia grandmother," as written by Joseph Ciokajlo in a 2003 letter to Joan Wright, née Ciokajlo, adapted by Felicia D'Ambrosio and Catherine Giacobbe)

5 oranges

4 lemons

1 Liter bottle good-quality ginger ale

1 heaping tsp. caraway seeds

6 sticks cinnamon

1.5 quarts honey (local preferred)

1 gallon Everclear or 100-proof whiskey (Four Queens suggested in original recipe)

Equipment: 2 big pots, one with tight-fitting lid; cheesecloth, juicer/reamer, colander, funnel, clean dishwashing gloves

Halve and juice all of the oranges and lemons into the stockpot that has a lid. Throw the rhines (sic) into the pot, along with all of the juice, pulp and seeds. Solids will be strained out later in the process.

Place the stockpot over medium heat and add the liter of ginger ale, caraway seeds and cinnamon sticks. Pour in all of the honey.

Allow the mixture to come to a simmer — when it foams, give it a good stir. Cover pot with lid and turn the heat down to medium-low; allow mixture to cook at a bare simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.

Place a colander in the second large pot. Pour the hot juice-honey mixture through the colander to strain out the big pieces.

Wearing the dishwashing gloves and working carefully (the rinds are very hot), squeeze all of the pulp and liquid out of the rinds through the colander. Discard eviscerated rinds and rinse the colander.

Move the colander over the original pot and line it with cheesecloth. Pour the mixture through the cheesecloth to catch any remaining solid bits or seeds. You may need to scrape the cheesecloth with a wooden spoon to press the liquid through. Gather the cheesecloth around the remaining solids and squeeze hard. Discard solids in cheesecloth, and return the strained mixture to low heat.

Here is the dangerous bit: Working carefully so as not to splash (Everclear is extremely flammable and cannot come into contact with open flames), pour the gallon of grain alcohol into the pot. Despite the name, DO NOT BOIL.

Warm the mixture through gently for just a few minutes and then remove from heat. Using a ladle and funnel, decant the Boilo back into the gallon Everclear jug.

Stopper the jug and store in the pantry, or use it to fill smaller glass bottles or jars for gift giving.

Serve Boilo warm by placing the jar in a gently simmering pan of water with the lid off; the water should come three-quarters of the way up the jar. Remove from the pan with tongs and serve straight up in shot glasses.

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