Rob Hardy: Punch

November 29, 2010 10:36:00 AM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


I am a strict and fervent teetotaler, so I might be the wrong person to review "Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl" (Perigee) by David Wondrich. True, I am never going to sample any of the many and curious recipes which Wondrich has provided, but although his book is partly a how-to guide about making and enjoying punch, it is also a history of a drink that has a has a lot of international relations connected to it.  


Punch also (and this is why the book''s subject interested me) shows up in a lot of the old books I like to read. Wondrich, who has published often about mixing drinks (he counts himself among the fraternity of mixologists), is an amusing writer who has done plenty of research about a subject he obviously loves. He calls punch the first globally popular mixed drink, the grandfather of them all, and says that until this book came out, the recipes for different sorts of punches have never been collected. He has plenty of historical notes about who was making punch and of what ingredients, and while he refers to its being part of, say, Dickens and Austen, he doesn''t give many literary specifics (I will help him in this review). So you don''t have to enjoy punch to enjoy "Punch." 


If Wondrich is right, there is an interest in mixological archeology, something like the fad for period instruments for recordings. Punch is, anyway, not what moderns may think it is. He never mentions Hawaiian Punch, for instance. He scornfully tells us that by "punch" he does not mean what my crowd used to call "hunch punch," that is, "the stuff sluiced around at fraternity mixers -- several 1.75-liter handles of whatever hooch is the cheapest, diluted with a random array of sodas and ersatz juices and ladled elegantly forth from a plastic trash can." He also sniffs at feature articles about stylish entertaining which describe punches that are "light, colorful things that are all fizz and fruit and are far too eager to please to be taken seriously as a delivery system for beverage alcohol."  


It''s good to define one''s terms, but "punch" can obviously be expanded to meaninglessness. The "OED" finds the etymology of the term explanatory; "punch" is from the Hindi for "five" and punch did have five ingredients (but as Wondrich says, "except of course when it didn''t"). This seems a bit like folk etymology, but it was the one Samuel Johnson used for his dictionary, too, and Johnson ought to know. He was a fan of the drink, and was even subject to ribbing from his pal David Garrick, who would mimic Johnson''s peculiar gesticulations in squeezing a lemon into a punchbowl and call out in the accent Johnson never lost, "Who''s for poonch?" 


It is significant that the etymology is traced to Hindi. It may be that punch was an Indian drink that members of the English East India Company''s trading posts in South Asia adopted. Wondrich, however, makes the case that British expatriates, especially sailors, far from home may have been taking the best available local ingredients and combining them in pleasing ways. Central to such punches was the distillate called "arrack," a generic term for an Indian brew that may have been made for 2,000 years. It had been unavailable in America since at least prohibition, but Wondrich says that while he used to have to import it himself when he wanted to use it, it is now more available for those who want to pursue the historical recreations listed within the chapter here on arrack punches. 


Sailors drank plenty of punch, and sailed the world over, again using whatever was available. Thus there were rum punches to be had in the West Indies. Americans used rum, of course, but also whiskey. In England, brandy was often the foundation. These liquors are expensive, as could be the sugar, fruit and spices added to the brew, so punch was a rich person''s drink, or was otherwise used for really special occasions. Thus Jane Austen''s Mrs. Bennett must have pleased the servant when she declared, "My dear Hill, have you heard the good news? Miss Lydia is going to be married; and you shall all have a bowl of punch to make merry at her wedding."  


There is always a force for economy, however, and gin began to be used for punch when the gin craze struck. Wondrich says, "''Gin punch'' is a combination of words that would have struck Jonathan Swift and his contemporaries not unlike the way "Crack Martini" strikes us today." It was called "gin twist," maybe because "gin punch" sounded so anomalous, and is the ancestor of the Tom Collins, "the drink that made gin an acceptable drink for the middle classes." 


Dickens''s incomparable Wilkins Micawber spoke of "the privilege of ordering the ingredients necessary to the composition of a moderate portion of that Beverage which is peculiarly associated, in our minds, with the Roast Beef of Old England. I allude to - in short, Punch." Dickens loved punch, and he loved making it, assembling his ingredients and theatrically combining them, all the while commenting to those gathered around for the libation on his technique and his progress toward the finished bowl.  


It must have made them all pleasantly thirsty for the final product! His recipe is here. Wondrich tends to give the original recipes in their own sometimes archaic language, and then suggests how moderns might approximate them. For Dickens''s punch, Wondrich can even recommend the particular brand of cognac which Dickens kept in his cellar. The way Dickens made punch is the sort of ritual that Wondrich would like to see brought back, and he does his share in bringing it back. "The ritual of the Punch bowl," he writes, "had been a secular communion, welding a group of good fellows together into a temporary sodality whose values superseded all others - or, in plain English, a group of men gathered around a bowl of Punch could be pretty much counted on to see it to the end, come what may." The "Bombay Presidency Punch," however, was described in 1676 as involving its consumers in "besotting themselves with drunkenness" leading to quarreling and dueling. (Hogarth''s funny and squalid "Modern Midnight Conversation" showing debauchees around a punchbowl is the book''s cover.) "I haven''t seen any dueling yet when I''ve trotted out this formula," Wondrich explains, "but there''s been an argument or two, and no end of blaspheming." 


Blasphemy or no, Wondrich is interested in bringing back the lost elegance of punch-making and punch-drinking. Punch takes time to prepare (it is no surprise that Wondrich allies himself with the "slow food" movement), and if you use, say, cognac, it might cost around eighty bucks for a bowl. "Punch matters," he says. "Punch has heft." It''s a convincing case, and you will find here many surprising details about how to test it. You will find a recipe for Meriton Latroon''s Bantam Punch, which included "amber-grease," or ambergris. This substance, a product of whale peristalsis, is the subject of some of the funniest chapters in "Moby Dick," and Wondrich will tell you where to get some, if you have the money. Admiral Russell''s Punch was originally made in so many hogsheads that a little boy in a little boat sailed on the punch sea, ladling it out for onlookers. Wondrich''s adjusted recipe is notated thus: "Yield: 18 cups. To make full scale, multiply all quantities by 700." There is Punch Jelly, which shows that Jell-O shots actually date back to at least 1862, the date of the recipe here. It is all historically fascinating, and written with a perfect light and amusing tone. Wondrich will surely convince some to give punch a serious try, even if they are members of a generation that knows only the application of "the technologies of miniaturization and just-in-time production to the process" of mixed-drink making. And for me, someone pass the orange juice.

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]