Thursday, March 22, 2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Too Late for Kumyss

Downtown Mt. Vernon, 1920s
(Westchester County Historical Society)

During the winter of 1974, I was stricken with some sort of respiratory illness and stayed home from school for several days.

The timing proved excellent.  Joni Mitchell had released her iconic album, “Court and Spark,” on January 1st of that year.  Now it was February, and I knew the record would be essential to my recuperation.

After everyone had dispersed to school and work, I got dressed immediately.  Although six inches of snow lay on the ground, my plan was to walk a few blocks to a street called Columbus Avenue, take the bus to downtown Mt. Vernon, and go to the Bee Hive Record Store.  (Its name came from a soda parlor that previously occupied the space.)

When the Bee Hive was still a soda parlor

By 10:30 I possessed the record and decided to stop at Clover Donuts, a coffee shop near the bus stop.  That’s where I ran into Mrs. Moskowitz.  She waved me over to the counter, pointing to an empty stool.  I sat down beside her and ordered a cup of tea.

She didn’t ask why I wasn’t in school.

That’s probably because Virginia (“Ginny”) McClellan Moskowitz had other things on her mind, like history.  In fact she was the city historian.  She knew everything related to Mt. Vernon’s past and present, as befitted a woman born and bred there.  Mrs. Moskowitz had grown up in a family of city fathers.  Her childhood and much of her adulthood were spent in a large Victorian house with three generations of McClellans.  After World War II, she married Dr. Eugene Moskowitz and they continued to live in the house.

Virginia McClellan (left column, fourth down)
 Mt. Vernon High School yearbook, 1933

During the early 1970s Mrs. Moskowitz became especially busy.  In advance of the U.S. Bicentennial, the federal government dispensed millions of dollars to support local history initiatives.  Mrs. Moskowitz would use her allotment to mount several exhibitions and organize the old stuff that was pouring in.  She needed a lot of help.  The previous summer I had volunteered in her fiefdom, the Local History Room. 

In that room, the wooden file cabinets were packed with papers, the tables piled with maps and photographs, and the display cases filled with medals, plaques, and old silver.  Mrs. Moskowitz definitely had a plan, though.  She was working on it.

And now here we were in Clover Donuts. 

“Nice to see you,” she said cheerfully.

I explained about being sick and the unfortunate situation of having to run an errand in such bad weather.  I didn’t mention Joni Mitchell.

Mrs. Moskowitz leaned close and said with a smile:  “You could probably use some cumis.”  That’s how I imagined the word, based on her pronunciation.  But no.  

“K-U-M-Y-S-S,” she spelled enthusiastically, then added:  “Unfortunately, you’re about 50 years too late!”  

Indeed, I was very late for Kumyss, a sparkling milk drink popularized by Mount Vernon’s first mayor, Dr. Edward F. Brush, as a cure for asthma, chest colds, indigestion, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and anything else that ailed anyone anywhere.  It was a classic nineteenth century patent medicine. 

Kumyss is made by fermenting unpasteurized cow’s milk.  The addition of yeast and sugar makes the drink fizzy and slightly alcoholic.  According to Dr. Brush, the healing powers of Kumyss were known to Homer, the nomadic tribes of Russia and Asia, Marco Polo, the Crim Tartars and the Uzbeks.

 Advertisement for Kumyss, circa World War I

Dr. Brush became interested in Kumyss during the 1870s and published a book called Kumyss or Russian Milk Wine.  Subsequently he began to promote the drink, created a market, and built a Kumyss factory in Mt. Vernon.  The sales made him a millionaire.  Meanwhile, he continued to practice medicine, specializing in pulmonary diseases.

However, he also loved being mayor and was reelected on the Republican ticket twice after an abbreviated first term, 1892-4.   

The rage for Kumyss ran through World War I, then started to decline.

But Mrs. Moskowitz kept the story alive.  And she found the perfect moment to tell it.  I can still hear her chatting about Dr. Brush while we drank our tea in Clover Donuts.  The windows were fogged, the sidewalks needed salt, and the twentieth century marched on, looking for a new cure.  

Mayor Edward F. Brush, early twentieth century

More Mt. Vernon posts: 11/8/17; 6/28/17; 5/18/16; 9/27/16; 12/29/15/; 11/2/15