Brandy Old-Fashioned, Snap-Dragon (or Flap-Dragon), and Raisins (Which Are NOT Gum, Mom!)

Back when I was in college, in the late 1970s, I ran across an interesting (and surprising) fact: 40 percent of the brandy consumption in the United States occurred right here in Wisconsin! Through the passing years this figure has varied and today the figure is closer to 15 – 20 percent, but one thing remains true, Korbel (the noted brandy manufacturer) still ships 1/3 of its total yearly output to our great state.

I still have trouble wrapping my head around these figures, but there are a few clues that seem to support the numbers. First, Wisconsinites favorite mixed drink – without question – is the brandy old-fashioned, either in sweet or sour forms. Outside Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and some areas of northern Illinois, this drink is practically unheard of – but in our state this is one of the first drinks our bartenders learn to mix.

A second clue to brandy’s popularity occurred years ago when I was dating a girl from Sheboygan. After a hearty dinner prepared by the girl’s Mom, the father invited me to sit with him in the living room while the women did the dishes [Note: I am paraphrasing the father here, folks. At home I almost always do the dishes]. Before we settled into our chairs the father asked me what flavor brandy I would like and preceded to display five bottles of brandy in an assortment of flavors. As I came to learn, it was his habit to enjoy a shot of brandy every night after dinner.

So perhaps, this custom is widespread throughout our state and, when combined with the popularity of the brandy old-fashioned, this is why we consume so much brandy.

There may be another reason, however, and this is where I bring this column around to the holiday season: the Christmas season parlor game called Snap-Dragon (sometimes Snapdragon) or Flap-Dragon.

This strange game involves a large, usually shallow bowl that is filled with brandy. Into the bowl you scatter raisins (traditional), though almonds, figs, currants, plums, candied fruits, or grapes can be used. The bowl is then placed in the center of a large table, all the lights in the room are extinguished, and the brandy is set afire, causing blue flames to dance across the liquid surface. One variation of note calls for a Christmas Pudding to be in the center of the bowl with the raisins/treats scattered around the Pudding bowl.

Now the game begins in earnest! Contestants must daringly dart their hand into the burning liquid to grab the raisins (or other treats) submerged in the bowl. One tradition holds that the contestant who snatches the most treats will meet their true love within the coming year. Another tradition includes a “gold button” that is inserted into one of the raisins/treats. The individual who grabs the treat with the gold button can claim a reward of their choosing.

According to the 1879 Book of Days, by Robert Chambers, the game can be accompanied by the following chant (presumably repeated until all the raisins/treats are retrieved from the burning brandy):

Here he comes with flaming bowl,

Don’t he mean to take his toll,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Take care you don’t take too much,

Be not greedy in your clutch,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

With his blue and lapping tongue

Many of you will be stung,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

For he snaps at all that comes

Snatching at his feast of plums,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

But Old Christmas makes him come,

Though he looks so fee! fa! fum!

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Don’t ‘ee fear him but be bold —

Out he goes his flames are cold,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

So even though I have lived in this state for 44 of my 56 years and have never seen this game played, perhaps Snap-Dragon (or Snapdragon or Flap-Dragon) is widely played in remote areas of Wisconsin. And when you combine old-fashioned consumption with after dinner shots of brandy and a game that involves large bowls of burning brandy (which would seem to require a considerable amount of alcohol) there are reasons for seemingly out-of-proportion brandy consumption.

Before I close this week’s column I should note that if I am ever at a holiday party where Snap-Dragon is played I intend to sit at the sidelines. Aside from the rather obvious idiocy of sticking one’s hand into burning alcohol, I have two other reasons for not participating.

First, as an acknowledged (though non-practicing) alcoholic I simply can’t abide the notion of burning off consumable alcohol. The second reason is slightly more involved.

When I was a very young lad living in Carthage, Illinois, I made it a practice to always have a small box of Sun-Maid Raisins with me wherever I went. At an early age the concept of sharing was impressed upon me by my parents, so one day, when I was out with some neighbor friends, I pulled out my box of Sun-Maid Raisins and offered my friends some … “gum.”

You can probably see where this is headed but for the record I always called my box of raisins “gum” and rather than correct my “cute” appellation for the dried fruit my parents adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward my fruit faux pas.

Well, folks, upon offering “gum” to my friends that day in Carthage, I was quickly informed that I was an idiot (probably not the term used by my young friends, but you get the idea) and that my “gum” was actually raisins.

“ Raisins?!,” I exclaimed as I hurled the box to the ground, “I hate raisins!”

And to this day, I have never willingly/knowingly eaten a raisin – let alone dipped my hand into burning alcohol to retrieve one.