The Truth About Punch Bowls

If you are a certain age, you remember when punch bowls, with their attendant ladles and cups, thrown on the wheel, were a popular potter’s project, a de rigueur test of skill. The ladle had to pour. The cups had to match. Each piece had to look and work well together. Thinking about it now though, I wonder how many households actually used the punch bowls we made. And really, is anything more absurd than a ceramic ladle? Rather like a glass slipper, don’t you think? But ladles are fun to make, pretty to look at, and customers do like them.

I learned to make punch in high school home economics. At the time, I thought it was a sophisticated concoction. I loved the way the sherbet in our ninth grade recipe floated on top and the colors gradually melted into one another and though it wasn’t said out loud by our teacher, we girls knew that real punch required alcohol. In the case of the sherbet punch, vodka. Punch, we understood, was an economical way to serve guests at baby and wedding showers (and stretch that unmentioned vodka).

Some years later, in the bookstore, we served guests at author events a punch made of half ginger ale and half apple juice. For a fancy event, we sliced oranges or strawberries to float on top. There was no question of vodka, because much of our customer base was underage and we did not have the necessary permits. It was surprising then, how many people at our events demurred after a second glass, saying they had to drive or were feeling a bit tipsy. It did not occur to them that the punch was not spiked.

Nevertheless, though associated with alcohol, punch was, and still is, considered a rather tame beverage. After all, the vodka or champagne or gin is diluted. That’s why it is a shower drink. But after reading David Wondrich’s Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl, An Anecdotal History of the Original Monarch of Mixed Drinks with More Than Forty Historic Recipes, Fully Annotated and A Complete Course in the Lost Art of Compounding Punch I discovered that early punch was the beverage of sailors and prostitutes and other rowdy folks. It was very potent. And, or course, it required a bowl. A big pottery bowl.

Here’s a recipe that Wondrich translated from the German Bowls and Punches for the Use of the German Army in the Field and on Maneuvers:

In a large earthenware pot heat ten liters light, red country wine and five liters Arrack, stirring constantly. While it is simmering, stir in a pound of sugar and four Seville oranges or regular oranges, and also two or three lemons, in slices. Having taken special care to ensure that the slices are free of seeds, simmer them in the mixture for five minutes and then pour it into a bowl flaming. A further dilution through the addition of more light, red country-wine will not obstruct its effectiveness.

Wow! That’s a lot of wine. And notice that the whole thing is set on fire before serving!

Woodrich believes that punch was the first mixed drink and that English colonists or seaman in a warm place such as India created it and spread it around the Empire and beyond. Early punch contained wine and distilled spirits such as Aqua vitae or Arrack. Distilled spirits do not go bad and often get better with age whereas beer and wine rations inevitably spoiled on long voyages. Early punches also included citrus fruit, which acted as a hedge against scurvy, the sailors’ curse.

The book includes a wealth of old recipes and history. Wondrich writes about Philadelphia Fish-House Punch (with rum, brandy and Madeira), a classic Champagne Punch from 18th century Paris and Daniel Webster’s secret recipe, given out only when he was close to death.

No, I will be making any of the recipes in Punch to serve my guests. We will sip our wine straight thank you, without floating lemons or Aqua vitae. However, the enormous earthenware bowls that were used intrigue me. And I have to admit, the flaming part sounds fun. I wonder if  Wondrich wants to commission something?

A Dragon on the Roof

After watching the video last week on unfired mud houses, my thoughts turned to fired architectural features. We all know that fired clay is everywhere in the house; toilets, floors, fireplaces and brick walls, but I was thinking particularly about roofs, or, as Hans van Lemmen calls it in his fun little book from Shire, Ceramic Roofware.

Tile roofs have been used throughout the world for millennia. Lemmen focuses his attention on Britain (Shire publishes hundreds of small, inexpensive books on British history, many of which are of interest to potters). The Romans brought tile roofs to Britain (the word tile is from the Latin tegula). Sadly, like most of the innovations the Romans introduced to the inhabitants of the British Isles, all was forgotten once the Empire broke apart and the Romans left. During the Dark Ages, roofs were made of thatch and wooden shingles.

But thatch and wooden shingles are dangerously flammable. A whole row of houses could quickly go up in flames with just one stray spark from a cooking fire. Gradually, tiles came back into use, first for prestigious buildings and then in urban areas for safety’s sake.

There are good directions for making your own medieval style English roof tiles in The Potter’s Alternative by Harry Davis. Early English tiles were flat and rectangular with a nail hole at the top for attaching. Some were made with a heel at the top so that they could be hung rather than nailed (or often both). Like all roofing materials, they overlapped to prevent rain from coming in. These early tiles were hand made by local potters and were fire resistant and waterproof and, unlike thatch, they did not attract mice and other critters. We could, if we wanted, or needed to, make them today ourselves in our studios and they would serve our homes well. Davis gives detailed instruction for not only flat English tiles but for the more often seen pantiles. “It is an ignominious experience indeed,” he writes, “ to be in the position of wanting to make pots in some remote place, wanting also to show the local inhabitants how to do so with the materials they have around them, and yet not knowing how to put a roof on some shed in which to do this. To succumb to using corrugated iron, or some other manufactured roof material made 10,000 miles away, is humiliating as well.”

Ok, when I grow up I want to be Harry Davis, or at least have his skill, or maybe Michael Cardew, not for his fame, but for his extraordinary self-sufficient abilities in addition to his art. If a potter put only two books on the shelf, Pioneer Pottery and A Potter’s Alternative are the two that I would suggest. Even if your studio is in suburbia or a city and you use an electric kiln, it is worth knowing this stuff.

Pantiles, the curved roof tiles, were brought to the UK from the Low Countries. As demand increased and the industrial revolution got underway, tile making was mechanized and roof tiles became prevalent and affordable.

Van Lemmen is interested in much more than roof tiles however. He goes on to discuss chimneys, chimney pots and decorations with enthusiasm. Chimney pots came into fashion during the Georgian era when coal burning replaced wood, necessitating the stronger chimney draft that the pots created. Like tiles, chimney pots were initially handmade; thrown on the wheel. They were traditionally two feet tall, or the length of a potter’s arm. By the middle of the twentieth century, electricity and gas had replaced coal, and chimney pots were no longer needed. Many were destroyed but because they were often so decorative, they were salvaged as garden ornaments and today there is a robust international business in antique chimney pots and reproductions.

It’s the ridge finials in Ceramic Roofware that really make me smile. Here we see the potters’ imaginations gone wild, surely inspired by distant Chinese roof decorations and closer to home,  magnificent cathedral gargoyles. They made winged dragons, kingly lions, enormous birds and purely ornamental shapes as ridge finials. Imposing. Playful. I think if I could sculpt (and alas I cannot). I might make a frog finial for our roof, perhaps sitting cross-legged reading a book.  I know, it would look a bit out of place in rural Connecticut, but as more and more of us put solar panels on our roofs, roof dragons might be just the thing. I notice there’s a roof dragon website in Britain.

The Joy of Mud Houses

With a good roof and a good foundation, a mud house can last for many centuries. But if it is no longer needed, it can be allowed to “return to the earth,” leaving little or no trace. Because clay is ubiquitous, mud houses are made with local materials, usually from the actual site itself, and often, though not always, by the inhabitants. Half the world’s population lives or works in mud buildings.

First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture, a DVD by David Sheen celebrates and extols the virtues of mud building. Sheen looks particularly at the astonishing ten-story skyscrapers in Yemen, the lovely antique cob houses of the UK, and the cob movement in the northwestern US. This is not a how-to video; it is an attempt to convince the fifty percent of the population that does not live or work in mud buildings to do so.

I live in a small wooden cape but do not need any convincing regarding the beauty or desirability of building with clay. I dream of one day making a little cob structure myself, mixing some of the red clay from the hill we live on with some of my trimming scraps, some manure from my daughter-in-law’s horses, and of course some nice clean chopped straw. It’s building a good stone foundation that gives me pause and that is probably beyond my skills. However, watching Sheen’s DVD and seeing all the inviting dwellings made me start planning again.

I wish he hadn’t opened the video with the sculpted mud houses in the US because they give an “old hippie” feel to the project. Not that I haven’t been accused of being an old hippie myself, and not that these houses aren’t aesthetically pleasing, but in truth, building with the earth is a very conservative, widespread and ancient method of construction, and that’s what skeptics and building inspectors need to understand first in order to be convinced. There is nothing la la about it.

Sheen is emphatic about the environmental benefits. Mud buildings are easier to warm in winter than other buildings, and they are cooler in summer. The materials do not require fossil fuels to transport or process. They are light on the earth.

He also points out that living in a mud house has nothing to do with one’s socioeconomic status. Yes, there are many impoverished people who live in simple one or two room affairs, but there are also high-end mud mansions. The segment on the UK features some lovely old cob houses and barns and the strictly governed restoration work that is being done to preserve them for another few centuries. There are, Sheen points out, over 40,000 cob houses in Devon alone. He shows us cozy rooms with red or blue walls, built in bookcases, pretty lamps and overstuffed sofas.

Because mud walls are thick and easily sculpted they lend themselves to the creation of niches, window seats, and built-ins. This is true in the mud houses of India and Pakistan (oddly not mentioned in the DVD), the thatched cottages in England, and the adobes of the American Southwest. Windowsills and doorjambs are invitingly wide. These houses are quiet.

First Earth includes the video plus interviews, slide shows, and printable high-res photographs. A nice package. In addition to this DVD, there are some excellent books on the topic, both instructional and appreciative, which I will reread and likely discuss in a future post before mixing up any batches of cob myself. Meanwhile, if you would like a bibliography, drop me an email.

A Fresh Look at Chinese Ceramic History

Two years ago scientists examined fragments of coarse gray pinch pots found by archaeologists in Yuchanyan, China and discovered that they dated back to at least 12000 BCE; the Paleolithic Era. This startling finding made headlines around the world. Along with the pots, there were rice hulls at the site. So we now know that pots were made and used for food and that some form agriculture was practiced at an earlier date than was previously believed. Potters in China, blessed with good clays, have continued to make ceramics up to the present.

Fourteen thousand years of pottery making! Without interruption!

There have been enough books and papers written on Chinese ceramics in English, French, Chinese, German and other languages, that the plethora of volumes could fill the shelves of a good-sized library. Do we really need one more? Have we not all read about the enormous dragon kilns? About porcelains and luminous celadons? You know, I am a history nut and can always read a bit more on the topic, but after picking up Chinese Ceramics: From the Paleolithic Period to the Qing Dynasty, I say, emphatically, yes, anyone interested in ceramics needs this addition to the reading table.

Chinese Ceramics is a joint project of the China International Publishing Group and Yale University Press and brings together the top scholars from both countries.

This is a very big book. It is meant to be read sitting up in a chair, maybe with some paper for notes, or ribbons to mark pages, but please, clean hands and no clay on your jeans. There are lots of drawings and photos with a deliberate attempt to include lesser-known works along with images of the most famous pieces we are all at least vicariously familiar with. So, yes, there are three-color Tang Dynasty horses and (my favorite) camels, but also works you have likely not seen. I had to chuckle at the “earliest known example of advertising on ceramics,” a lovely white porcelain vase (also from the Tang Dynasty) with a “foliate mouth” and the inscription, “Vases made by Ding Daogang are superb.” Well, if this vase is a representative example, I agree, vases by Ding Daogang are indeed superb. Inspired (which is what this book does to you, it inspires), I might try a foliate mouth myself but doubt mine will come out quite so nice and plump.

The editors, Li Zhiyan, Virginia A. Bowers, and He Li, have organized the book chronologically, ending with the early twentieth century. The various contributors focus on six themes; “continuity, national or ethnic character, geography, periodization, synthesis and dissemination.” There is also a look at authenticity (oh the forgeries, some of them antiquities themselves). They incorporate the latest research and findings; cargo from the Belitung and the Sinan shipwrecks; the discovery of the Ming Imperial Kiln; and hitherto little known collections. They seek to understand the ceramic industry and the culture in which it thrived, especially how the wares were made and how they were used. Chinese pottery was shipped vast distances and influenced ceramics wherever it was sold. And Chinese potters absorbed ideas from elsewhere and made them their own. At almost seven hundred pages, there is a lot here.

The contributors have spent ten years on Chinese Ceramics. We readers and potters are the beneficiaries. So I thank them. This is one book I expect to turn to again and again over the years.

And now, I will try that foliated mouth.