Ode to Punch
My parents are both one of 8 children. In the prolific tradition of fertile Catholic clans, I have over 50 first cousins. So every month, there were inevitably birthday celebrations. We never celebrated individually. You were lumped in with your cousins as a “February” or a “September” and your name was sung in a long, tangled and chirpily offkey jumble: Happy Birthday Dear PeterSusanChrissyBrennaMaggieLizzieandDavvvviiiidddddddddd. One of my earliest memories is fiercely elbowing out my fellow Marches for a chance to blow out the candles, a competitor and cake lover from the start. A dedicated worshipper from early days to all things festive.
These monthly gatherings with huge groups shaped my perception of winter. While so many consider January through April a time to hibernate, in my family, we had at least two huge birthday parties and get togethers a month. All marked by singing, cake, gifts, and squabbling cousins of all ages. Glamorous older cousins showed me how to crimp my hair. Uncles snuck us drinks we weren’t allowed to have. Thrown out of the house for making too much of a racket, we raced after each other through my grandfather’s woods, shooting purloined BB guns and racing rickety golf carts in the melting snow.
This rowdy clan delighted my extroverted husband Andrew the first time I brought him to one of these bashes. After 18 years, he is more popular with my cousins than I am, and I have to tear him away at the end of the party from his friends.
The drive home is always full of him sighing happily to himself.
“Man, that Ryan. Love him.”
“Hah, so good to see Jessie.”
“Did you get to talk to Peter?”
Patronizing as this may be, watching straight men makes friends as adults is hilarious to me.
Something he has never adjusted to, however, is what we consider “party food.” In some ways, we decided what the menu would be in the early 1990s and, through some fit of nostalgia or perhaps sheer laziness, have never updated it. From pigs in a blanket to cheese balls to rice pudding to shrimp cocktail, we’re dining in a different decade. I want to be clear— I will not tolerate any disrespect to these dishes. I challenge you to show me a small bite that goes faster at an event than a pig in a blanket, but we have not really added a lot of nuance. There is nothing that Gwennie would be able to eat during her January detox, if that clears anything up for you.
A true family favorite is our Ice Cream Punch. A horrifying concoction of Sprite, orange sherbet, and vanilla ice cream, it is dizzyingly sugary, but we cannot do without it. I have consumed enough of it to consider myself at least partially punch by this point. Andrew can’t stomach a cup of it. But to me, it’s not a birthday without it.
In an effort to help me elevate my palate, Andrew has tried to lead me, like a reluctant horse to the proverbial water, into the world of punch. For someone who is very cool and accomplished in so many areas of his life, he can be delightfully nerdy about some things. Despite some VERY disappointing run-ins with alcoholic punch at Vassar (for what is Jungle Juice but a punch made in a trash can by determined undergraduates), Andrew has convinced me that punch can be more than sugar.
My ice cream bastardization aside, punch is considered the world’s first and oldest cocktail. In my “research” for this blog, dear reader, I’m happy to report that there’s a rich debate on whether it was originally developed in India, as some accounts suggest that the name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘paanch’, meaning five, since the cocktail typically comprised five elements – a balance of alcohol, citrus, sugar, water and spice (mainly nutmeg). The other school of thought theorizes that this wasn’t the case, and that the drink’s name originates from puncheons, a term for alcohol barrels used on ships during the 17th century. Regardless, it was popularized as an alternative to beer, which often rotted en route, by the East India Trading Company as they traveled back to Europe. These large communal drinks were a staple until hygiene made clear that single serving drinks were required. My, how the world turns.
(This is actual footage of how smug Andrew gets drinking with my family)
Most cultures have a truly great punch. Ponche in Mexico, while very seasonal, is truly tremendous and is beautifully presented with local stone fruit. Sangria is a derivation of punch that I can absolutely get behind. We took a sangria class as a team with some wonderful Portugese drag queens who scolded us for not muddling with enough vigor— I’ve never squeezed a lime so aggressively in my life after that. I’ve made some ill-advised life choices while drinking rum punch in the Carribean. Koreans make a cinnamon punch called Sujeonggwa. I drank it once standing over a trash can fire in a factory in the mountains far outside of Seoul, and I’ve never felt warmer.
(This is actual footage of how weird I can be posing for pictures)
My absolute favorite punch, however, is a champagne punch. In January, it’s such a lazy lift for entertaining. Cold, extra brut Champagne, Pomegranate juice, a splash of Grand Marnier and a lot of fresh mint. I top it off with ice that I’ve frozen pomegranate seeds into and some fresh orange slices. Perfect for this time of year.
I find that a punch bowl is one of the tools I like to pull out of my Mary Poppins’s bag of entertaining tricks the most. Need a glamorous ice bucket? Done. Need an oversized floral arrangement? Achieved. Need something to glam up your mini Fireballs shots? Put them on ice in your vintage punch bowl. Need an easy, showstopper signature cocktail but don’t have time to tend bar all night? Consider a punch.