Holiday punch is the essence of holiday entertaining, but what is the essence of holiday punch?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Dec. 17 2010 7:10 PM

The Bowl's the Thing

Notes on holiday punch.

Punch bowl. Click image to expand.
A punch bowl.

To every season, there is a punch. There are cooler punches bobbing with lime sherbet as green as spring itself, and there are tawny back-to-school punches as only college sophomores can concoct—the fall breeze quickening their pulses as they decant the second handle of Everclear and cast about for more powdered drink mix. During this season of jollity it's time to get serious about punch. Holiday punch is the essence of holiday entertaining, but what is the essence of holiday punch?

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Quantity is chief among its special qualities. The bowl is the thing. (By this standard, Planter's Punch, properly served in a Collins glass, would not qualify as punch unless the Collins glass were four feet tall and accompanied by a Brobdingnagian ladle.) But we needn't be too choosy about the particulars of the vessel. Stockpots and crockpots, crystal and pewter basin, 10-gallon Gatorade coolers and 6-quart salad spinners with no-skid bases—all are viable. Kingsley Amis somewhere proposes a baby bath. Charles Dickens specifies a common basin "which may be broken in case of accident, without damage to the owner's peace or pocket." Accidents will happen. In all its guises—even kiddie fizzes laced with nothing more potent than red food coloring—punch invites frolicsome gluttony.

Mulling the matter, let us continue with a note on mulled ciders and other toasty potions. That note will be brief. "There is not much to be said in general about these," as Amis once wrote. "They will warm you up, and they will make you drunk if you drink enough of them." Also, when lovingly seasoned with allspice berries and cloves and such, they do double-duty as air fresheners. The most venerable of the hot punches is the wassail, an apple-ish drink tied to harvest rituals, Saturnalian cavorts, and Yuletide caroling. It would be most properly traditional to prepare it with ale. But let's be clear that we are talking about a tradition that involves going door to door to sing songs that threaten violence: "If you don't open up your door, we'll lay you flat upon the floor." The wassail is the most pungent reminder of punch's pagan nature.

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No discussion of the Christmastime bowl would be complete without a word about eggnog. Often that word is yech. Eggnog: a blend of milk, sugar, eggs, and spices enlivened by rum or bourbon, if you prefer, or even good brandy, if you like to squander good brandy. Perhaps eggnog is so frequently invoked as a punch line because even the most moderate consumption of it feels overindulgent. All the extravagance of American Christmas becomes concentrated in one heaving glass, and it comes to seem possible that our culture regards bloating as a recreational activity in its own regard. Its richness is a rite, and its status as an archetypal holiday punch is a function of that ritual air.

Recent times have found Americans consuming commercially produced eggnog base at the rate of 130 million pounds per year. I sense my readers wincing at that statistic—four-tenths of a pound of nog per head in a country diverse enough to include the abstemious, the lactose intolerant, the grossly underage, the totally grossed-out, and those connoisseurs who are so partial to homemade eggnog that their arms ache from beating egg whites every time they open a new window on the advent calendar. Meanwhile, some of you are still trembling at the telling fact that experts prefer to measure this drink according to a unit of mass rather than one of fluid volume. Perhaps eggnog is only incidentally a liquid. Even when mixed to deliciousness—according to the minimalist formula of The Joy of Cooking, say—its libational satisfactions are limited. Why not just pour a fifth of Maker's Mark into your custard and be done with it?

There are purists who insist that neither wassail nor eggnog constitute a proper punch, and the most eminent among them is the writer David Wondrich, whose Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl arrived in bookstores last month. Its cover features a detail of William Hogarth's Midnight Modern Conversation, with its "motley crew of ranters, bores, jesters and dozers." Hogarth's sots gather round the bowl as if conspiring against reason. Surely, just a few cups earlier, they presented a more respectable vision of the ritual of the punch bowl—"a secular communion," as Wondrich calls it, "welding a group of good fellows together into a temporary sodality whose values superseded all others." Punch would make a fine stocking stuffer even for a teetotaler, provided that she has a sufficient thirst for arcana. The author—plucking a quote from Samuel Pepys here, a recipe from A.J. Liebling there—is intoxicated by research and off on a jag of contextualization. Why, this book is almost not wholly inappropriate for people who are on the wagon, as its most harrowing anecdotes about this "spree drink" provide reminders of the trustiness of that vehicle. Surely no sober person has ever urinated in his fiancee's parents' fireplace, as one James Gordon Bennett Jr. did while paying a New Year's call in 1877, shortly before disappearing from the face of the earth.

Throughout the book, Wondrich uppercases the beverage as "Punch," the capital idea being to distinguish the subject of his investigation from "the degenerate compounds that have usurped its name" and also to distinguish it as a class of drink—"a simple combination of distilled spirits, citrus juice, sugar, water and a little spice." Opening with a 50-odd page history of the drink, the author sorts through legend and hearsay to theorize that punch was a British invention, created by an anonymous junior officer in the East India Company circa 1610. He gives the contours of its supremacy as a tipple in the 1700s, then briefly wonders at the circumstances of its decline as a social institution around the turn of the 19th century: "Ideas of democracy and individualism extended to men's behavior in the barroom, where they were less likely to all settle for the same thing or let someone else choose what they were to drink. ... The flowing bowl would serve out the rest of its days in the twilight land of the special occasion, holiday-gathering drink."

If you are going to attempt only one punch this season, then I am tempted to recommend, unoriginally, Fish House Punch, so named for having been concocted by the men of the Schuylkill Fishing Company, an old Philadelphia angling club. According to one version of its creation myth—one that Wondrich doesn't even trifle with explicitly debunking—a club member whipped it up for a Christmas party in 1848, the first occasion on which women were invited within the clubhouse walls. The aim? "To please the ladies' palates but get them livelier than is their usual wont." Gosling's rum will do nicely; Hiram Walker peach brandy should suffice; choose a cognac that will meld with the lemon to achieve a very special tang.

If you are not going to attempt a punch this season, then I am tempted to recommend especially not attempting Amis' Christmas Punch, which its author calls Jo Bartley's Christmas Punch. You might at first question the seriousness with which he offers the recipe. Amis wants you to gather three bottles of dry or medium-dry Spanish white wine, two bottles of cocktail gin, one bottle of non-cognac brandy, one bottle of British sherry, and one bottle of dry British vermouth. He holds that five quarts of medium-sweet cider will blend these cheap parts into a dynamic whole. He adds, parenthetically, "If you feel like throwing in the unfinished drinks from last night, nobody will notice." The vivid gaiety of that last sentence balances its routine depravity nicely. Sure, throw in the floaters. The soul of punch, like the true spirit of the holidays, is in being all-inclusive.

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