30 December, 2010

Now Everyone, Gather 'Round The New Year's Punch Bowl!

Courtesy of David Wondrich as seen on npr.org

Courtesy of liquor.com
Oh, the punch bowl! Sometimes it is filled with warm, old Anglo-Saxon potions like Wassail, other times it has chilled, refreshing preparations like Agua de Jamaica (Hibiscus Punch) from tropical regions, or even a punch with a modern twist like Asian Iced Tea that uses sake. Regardless, the punch bowl is a Holiday staple for many but for those of us* (see note at bottom of page) who grew up in the mid 1980s-90s, it's also rather iconic and reminiscent of tacky school dances (though there was always the potential that someone would spike it), with Preppy boys in Members Only jackets worn over Izod polo shirts and loafers without socks, or the Metal guys in all black and hair that was constructed with enough flammable hair spray on just one head to set the whole gymnasium on fire with the spark from a match. The girls rivaled the boys for poofiest,  feathered hair (though they often added the bonus look that only a crimping iron can) and completed their wardrobe ensemble with well shoulder-padded, pastel, taffeta dresses, blue eyeshadow, and maybe legwarmers. 

Courtesy of liquor.com
For our parents, punch bowls meant the 1970s, adult version of tacky school dances:  cocktail parties! The decor was still tacky, shiny, and also often amid wood-paneled walls and linoleum floors, but the male guests were dressed in corduroy jackets over pastel, ruffled, bell-bottomed suits, and depending on where they were in the country, the women were in patchwork dresses (Little House on the Prairie style), or gold lame halters (à la Donna Summer). At least at these get-togethers, one could count on the punch being laced with something, though with exactly what kind of substance was unclear.  

Speaking of those days, my mother received a gorgeous, crystal punch bowl set as a wedding gift in the early 70s and being the loving woman that she is, entrusted it to her only daughter to use for a party, only to lament said daughter when the bowl accidentally fell off of a wobbly table and crashed on the floor leaving only the ladle intact. My mom may have forgiven me, but I will regret forever having to see those crystals sparkle in the sun as they shattered and flew through the air in a dozen different directions! 

The 1950s into the early 1960s was a good time for punch, or for that matter, any kind of alcoholic drink mixture, especially when it had bright colors and tropical accessories! The TV show Mad Men isn't popular now for the nostalgic clothing and beautiful cast alone; the idea that Cocktail Hour was a normal part of the American lifestyle is something that many today have never experienced first-hand, but long for nonetheless. Romanticized, cliche images from movies and LIFE magazine are to blame; the academic type found in oak and leather-clad offices complete with all the proper mixing/serving paraphernalia and that favor barrel-aged scotches and exotic liquors; to the working-class men from the factory who gather daily at the dive bar in a dodgier part of town after their grueling shifts to down pints of cheap beer; to the "happy" housewife in a poodle skirt, high heels, a missile-shaped bustier, Communist-red lips, and martini in-hand. 

Courtesy of liquor.com
The era of my grandparents' youth was also a good time for the punch bowl. Many of that generation had been born into or just after The Great Depression, a time characteristic of hard work for little pay and in general, frugal living. That was all followed by a more prosperous, yet short-lived, period before WWII struck and strained the finances of many Americans again. Unless you came from a family whose bank books were full and secure, or were a fictional character in one of Ernest Hemingway's novels, teenagers in the 1930s didn't have a lot of opportunities to have unbridled fun in each other's company. Stricter taboos against young male/female interactions and discriminatory practices against immigrants and people of any color  other than pale also made socializing with the opposite sex a challenge.

Enter the dance hall. These were neutral, cheap spaces for meeting new people and for hormones to go unchecked, even if the eyes of  parental chaperons were constantly watching. The economic constraints of the time may not have allowed for much extravagance or variety at the refreshment table, but there was always room for a punch bowl. Combine some sugared water (carbonated, if available), a few pieces of fruit, some lemon slices, maybe some common table wine (depending on the group sponsoring the get-together), or local bourbon/bathtub gin sneaked into the bowl, and voila - you have punch! My grandparents, in fact, met at a dance where the crowd was mainly recently transplanted or first-generation Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, or other Eastern Europeans. They danced the Polka, eventually married and started a family, and continued to go to dances until their arthritic joints would not permit it anymore. Even into their Golden Years, punch (though usually sugar and alcohol-free) was a fixture at every one of these gatherings.

Courtesy of npr.org
Going back in time even further, expert mixologist, historian, and James Beard award-winning author David Wondrich put out a new book recently about this undying concoction's past entitled, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. In his investigation Wondrich found some interesting tidbits of information about punch, its inception, and its notorious connotations to the drinking habits of people in both  high society and the seedy underbelly. As quoted by Wondrich, he takes the reader "on a tour that starts with some very lonely British sailors and swells to include a cast of lords and ladies, admirals, kings, presidents, poets, pirates, novelists, spies, and other inimitable characters." He also goes into detail about Charles Dickens and the English author's appreciation for the staging of punch at parties. NPR did a nice story on this book today that I think is also worth a look/listen!

Courtesy of drunkistan.myshopify.com
Another site that mentions Wondrich's book is The Huffington Post where columnist Max Watman gives an excellent commentary on Christmas punch. Though not about this featured brew in a bowl, Wondrich published another good read to check out about the history of alcohol called, Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks. I also located a website that provides vintage recipes, with punch ones here. The English Bishop Punch looks delicious, however time-consuming, the Black and Tan Punch is right up my alley, and The Ladies' Delight, Thursday Luncheon Punch and To Make Punch Another Way are fun to say!

A few more random, tasty recipes found on Liquor.com are below:
Pyrat Punch
Naughty or Nice
Nicaraguan Negroni Punch 
Mexican Punch
Cardamom and Pop Punch
Green Acres Punch

Here is my suggestion for a cooled punch with a bite:
Combine ginger beer (not ginger ale); high-quality, dark rum like Goslings Black Seal; pineapple juice (if you want, you can use the liquid and fruit from canned pineapple); club soda or other sparkling water; simple syrup (or nix this and the sparkling water and replace with a juice-sweetened, sparkling drink); and pineapple chunks. Swirl and serve with mint leaves as garnish.
-Make sure all the mixer liquids are pre-chilled so that you don't have to add ice that will water the punch down and dilute the taste.
-To re-carbonate, add large ice cubes (they will dissolve slower) and use a hand whisk to add air back into the punch.
-Enjoy with others!

For a few professional pointers on making your punch, check out this video from chow.com:

*I would imagine gay (literally) gatherings in the past revolved in much the same way around the punch bowl, but as most were held in relative secret, and I know less about those accounts, I will stick to the hetero history.

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