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?

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