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Make The Punch Bowl Your Holiday Party Centerpiece


Even though Christmas and New Year are still a few weeks away, we're already well into holiday party season. And punch bowls are often the centerpieces of festive gatherings. For tips on how to make sure the punch bowl does its job as star libation attraction, writer Julia Reed. She's a columnist for Garden & Gun, a Southern lifestyle magazine.

Julia dug up some recipes from the past, including Chatham Artillery Punch. That's a 19th century brew cooked up by a regiment that guarded the city of Savannah long ago. Reed says the Chatham Regiment was known for mixing a drink with a kick like a cannon.

JULIE REED: A gallon of gin, a gallon of rye, a gallon of cognac, two gallons of rum, two gallons of Catawba wine - which is sort of some bad sparkling grape juice - and 12 quarts of champagne. This pretty much laid everybody low, I think. And that that's the best way to kick things up. I have a recipe for a punch from another Southern city, Montgomery, Alabama. And it has relatively, I mean modest ingredients which are just brandy, champagne and salt turned with a little sugar and lemon juice.

And I think what happens is you walk into somebody's house and there's a gorgeous silver punch bowl, or even a silver pitcher, and it's sort of glistening with moisture on the outside. And you've got all these pretty julep cups or crystal cups, or whatever you have. And it immediately makes you feel festive. It's also a good way to discuss the fact...


REED: ...that what you're really doing is just giving everybody a whole bunch of booze, but it looks very elegant.

MONTAGNE: Oh, well, I love a quote that you have from a drinking buddy of Ernest Hemingway's. It's called "The Rituals of the Punch Bowl." And you have that piece with you right now, right?

REED: I do. Hold on, let me find this sucker. It's a guy named Charles H. Baker, Jr. And he was sort of a professional bon vivant and he did drink with Hemingway, and apparently thousands of other people all over the world. And he's got a book called "The Exotic Drinking Book," and it's a volume in "The Gentlemen's Companion," which I recommend everybody go to a used bookstore and try to find.

But he gets sort of teary-eyed over the quote, "Ritual of the Punch Bowl." And he says: Few things in life are more kind to man's eye than the sight of a gracefully conceived punch bowl on a table proudly surrounded by gleaming cohorts of cups made of crystal or white metals, in meshing every beam of light and tossing it back into a thousand shattered spectra, to remind us of the willing cheer within.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. Well, I don't know...

REED: This is a guy who really liked to drink, obviously.


MONTAGNE: Well, he took a great aesthetic appreciation of it. I don't have a tear in my eye, but kind of a little smile on my face, thinking about that.

REED: Well, you can get a little - I mean, you know, some punch is really good.


REED: I mean and it is - I like the phrase, especially: The willing cheer within. I mean, like I said, it's easier to be of good cheer during the holidays when you're serving up some cheer.

MONTAGNE: Well, one thing you might expect to see also when you come into a holiday party, is a bowl full of eggnog. You have a recipe for what you call The World's Greatest Eggnog.

REED: Well, I didn't name it that. But I'd never been a big eggnog fan myself. In New Orleans, people are more apt to make milk punch; which is just milk and bourbon and brandy, and some simple syrup and it's...


REED: You can make it faster and get it down quicker. But eggnog has a terrible reputation because people buy it in those cartons in the grocery store and it sort of tastes like synthetic rum has been poured in. And I, you know, yuck.

But this friend of mine had an aunt in Memphis named Lynn Robinson Williams. And Lynn Robinson Williams died in her bed at age 96, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other. So I figured that this woman, who lived a very long time...


REED: ...and still managed to have some fun, would it be good for an eggnog recipe? And when I tasted this it really is the world's greatest eggnog - but that's what she wrote on - you know, those old ladies had those recipe cards they used to put in file boxes, you know.


REED: So this one was on one of those things, in this woman's own handwriting, and she called it "The World's Greatest Eggnog." And the secret is basically a whole lot of bourbon and some whip cream to cut the egg. But it's delicious.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, the recipe is pretty straightforward.

REED: Well, you just put bourbon into the bowl and then you stir in some sugar, and you let it sit overnight - if you can. And then you beat the egg yolks until they're sort of a pale yellow, which means you got to beat them a long time. And then you fold that into the bourbon and sugar and you let that sit a little bit. Sort of the secret is, sort of, the marination(ph) a little bit in the bourbon.

Then you whip some cream until its stiff and you fold that in there, and you let it sit for an hour. And that serves about 20 people. I mean like to serve eggnog sometimes for dessert 'cause it's so rich.

MONTAGNE: That does seem like the right time, although it's always served beforehand. I certainly serve it beforehand. But it's really better as a dessert. It's like ice cream.

REED: It is. Well, I mean I have to say that you...


REED: can hedge your bets and put booze in Christmas food, you know. I mean one of the Southern staples at cocktail parties and stuff are something bourbon balls, which are basically just crushed up vanilla wafers and cocoa and a boatload of bourbon. And I have big sort of old fashioned holiday buffet parties with, you know, big, chafing dishes of Seafood Newburg on the table. And I realized that that has just ton of sherry in it.

I mean you can just sort of have an entirely alcoholic feast. But it's back to Oscar Wilde: After a good dinner like that, you can forgive anybody including your relatives.

MONTAGNE: Well, how does one make sure that the guests don't drink too much, so that things get ruined?

REED: Well, you can never be sure of that.


REED: The main thing is, you know, while you're having big bowls of punch you also need to have lots and lots of food. If you put an elegant sheen on everything, people tend to behave accordingly. Like I said, you know, if you walk in and you have that punch bowl Mr. Baker describes - glistening there with, you know, sort of crystal cups and stuff - people are not going to end up throwing the cup across the room at somebody.

MONTAGNE: Some people - I don't know. I've been...


MONTAGNE: I've been to parties where the punch bowl is like death itself.

REED: Well, yeah. No, I know. I mean I think Christmas is a time, you know, every party - especially at the holidays to me - should be an anecdote or something. I mean it should be the antidote to, sort of, you know, the everydayness of our lives. Or, you know, too much toil and strife, or too much shopping. Or just, you know, the antidote to what you really want to do which is like get in some sweatpants and watch TiVo all day.

I mean it should be a way to get you out of yourself. And people should dress up and throw some mistletoe or tinsel in their hair, or whatever, you know, and get into the spirit. And yes, proceed with the festivities with the dazzling punch bowl full of willing cheer, as Mr. Baker says. I mean I just think that this is the time to do it.

MONTAGNE: Well, Happy Holidays to you.

REED: Thank you very much, Renee. And I highly recommend this eggnog, I have to say.


MONTAGNE: Julia Reed is a contributor to Garden & Gun magazine. And about that eggnog, we posted the actual recipe for "The World's Greatest Eggnog" on the MORNING EDITION Facebook page. You'll also see it if you follow us on Twitter @morningedition.

And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.