When you think of a punchbowl, what comes to mind? Church socials with sticky-sweet sherbet concoctions and polite conversation about Aunt Mildred’s prize-winning petunias? Something to spike at school proms or homecoming dances? Punch was once celebrated at all types of gatherings but sadly, the modern party-thrower dusts off the punchbowl only for holiday dining, baby or bridal showers—then puts it away without fanfare. Patrick Swayze said so famously in Dirty Dancing, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” or in this case, the cupboard; punch culture needs to stir it up!
The punch line
Punch wasn’t always relegated to occasions you felt obligated to attend; punch fought its way up the social ladder and wove itself into an integral part of American history.
The word punch is derived from a Hindi word meaning five, as its base consists of five ingredients; alcohol, sugar, water, lemon and tea or spices. Punch originated in India and was brought back to England by sailors working for the East India Trading Company. Once this sailor’s delight reached the mother country, it was quick to spread to other European countries and our 13 colonies, where hydrating with booze was safer than drinking water of unknown origin and distracted early Americans from the uncomfortable cold. The average colonist drank six gallons of alcohol annually, compared with our more measured, modern annual intake of two. Indeed, it is said that the founding fathers emptied 76 bowls of punch to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Flash forward to the Victorian age, when the rise of teetotalism caused spirits to fall further and non-alcoholic punch become the favored drink of ladies and children. Punch became less of a vehicle to consume alcohol and more of a tool for hosts to show off their entertaining prowess. What had been the plain ceramic punch bowl was transformed into a medium for artisans to showcase their talents; wealthy families commissioned silversmiths to create elaborate decorative designs that showed off their taste and means. A fine example resides in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Tiffany Room in Richmond. The Punch Bowl with Three Ladles was designed in 1900 and is one of the most important works created by the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company. This stunner debuted at the Paris World’s Fair of 1900 where Louis Comfort Tiffany won a grand prize and received the French Legion of Honor.
Throw the first punch
Few of us are lucky enough to have a museum-worthy punchbowl stashed away, but modern entertaining is less about showing off wealth and elaborate culinary skill and more about embracing time spent with friends in delightful and intimate settings. Luckily, a festive punch is easy to prepare, beautiful to look at, a cinch to serve, and a natural gathering place for guests to converse. The modern hostess can create a party sensation with a few simple ingredients, garnishes and gorgeous cocktail glasses; add some witty party napkins and a well-curated cheese board and it’s an occasion.
Let’s be realistic—we can’t spend our days drinking like sailors or founding fathers. At some point we need to put away the punch bowl and lead our mundane lives.
“But, its Tiffany!” you say.
Of course it is (wink, wink). You shouldn’t have to crowd those copper mule cups in the corner cupboard to make room for your punchbowl after every gathering. Why not make the divine vessel part of your everyday décor?
While most people’s hand-me-down punch bowls are less indicative of wealth and societal status and more of, well, a large and fancy bowl, they deserve a place of honor. When it’s not holding court as the belle of your social gatherings, the container can serve a variety of useful and beautiful purposes; pull out the punchbowl and let it show off its multiple personalities! While dining in D.C. at the waterside restaurant Fiola Mare, I noticed a gorgeous seafood tower being presented to group after group. It was brought out in a silver punchbowl-like vessel of polished stainless steel with a writhing pewter octopus holding the bowl in his tentacles; it lavishly displayed oysters, mussels, lobsters, prawns, sea urchin and scallops. Over the top in appearance and decadence, it delighted the diners, who smiled as if they were winning a coveted prize like the Stanley cup, which as fate would have it, is nicknamed the “punchbowl.”
Get creative with unconventional uses for the punchbowl in your own home. Shine it up and display seasonal décor and small wrapped gifts or favors to surprise and delight party guests. In the autumn, use it to showcase gourds and pumpkins as a fall centerpiece. Year-round, make a gorgeous terrarium of moss and succulents or shed antlers and pine. Why not upgrade your hallway catchall and drop daily mail and keys in classier fashion? Turn the punchbowl upside down as a base, to give a vase or plant extra height. If you’re entertaining sans punch, simply use it as a supersized ice bucket to chill your champagne.
When it’s your turn to host book club or a Monday night Bachelor watch party, be the first to break out the punchbowl and bring back the elixir of the gods, sailors, founding fathers, homecoming queens and yes, even dear Aunt Mildred. Punch is back in fashion and your punchbowl will not be ignored! ✦
Punch is poised to be the next Moscow Mule, racing past the Aperol Spritz to the classy, cool status of a Manhattan or even its posh cousin, the martini.
SPARKLING POMEGRANATE PUNCH
- 2 oranges, thinly sliced crosswise
- 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
- 3/4 cup late-harvest white wine, such as late-harvest Riesling,
- chilled Ice cubes, for serving
- 2 750-milliliter bottles sparkling wine, chilled
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 cup diced fresh pineapple (1/2 inch)
- 1 cup pomegranate juice
In a punch bowl, dissolve the sugar in the pomegranate juice, stirring vigorously. Add the sparkling wine and late-harvest white wine, then add the orange slices, diced pineapple and pomegranate seeds. Serve the sparkling pomegranate punch over ice cubes. (Food and Wine)
A classic Champagne cocktail, the Poinsettia is a festive orange-andcranberry- flavored, rose-tinted punch that’s perfect for Christmas. Use floating frozen orange slices and cranberries to keep the punch nicely chilled and decorated.
- 8 (1/4-inch-thick) orange slices, from about 2 oranges, for garnish
- 2/3 cup fresh or frozen cranberries, for garnish
- 3 cups chilled cranberry juice
- 3/4 cup chilled Cointreau
- 2 (750-milliliter) bottles chilled brut sparkling wine or champagne
This punch is not served with ice, so make sure all the ingredients and the punch bowl are well chilled. If you have an extra bowl that’s larger than your punch bowl, fill it with ice and nestle the punch bowl inside to keep it cold. (Chowhound)