The High & The Low: Drink and Be Merry
Then there’s the city’s St. Cecilia Society punch, another variation on the classic brandy, rum, tea, and champagne mixture that’s always served at the annual ball of the august society, formed in 1766 and named for the patron saint of music. In 1896 the Baltimore Sun reported that there is “no social organization in America so old or so exclusive” and that the balls are “characterized by dignity.” Maybe so, but after the only one I ever attended (a boarding school running mate was being presented), I woke up with a date on a park bench in an evening gown and missed two airplanes out of town. As a result, I prefer the slightly more refined punch recipe given to me by my friend Lynn Steiner from Montgomery, Alabama, where it is something of an institution. First published in the cookbook of the local Episcopal Church ladies, it consists mainly of champagne, Sauternes, and brandy, and is especially pretty with a decorated ice ring.
But then even the roughest punches can be things of beauty. My hero Charles H. Baker, Jr., the professional bon vivant, world traveler, and occasional drinking buddy of Ernest Hemingway, gets borderline teary-eyed over the “Ritual of the Punch Bowl” in the Exotic Drinking Book volume of his seminal Gentleman’s Companion: “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, enmeshing every beam of light, and tossing it back into a thousand shattered spectra to remind us of the willing cheer within.”
Baker’s book contains an extensive section on punch, but there’s mention of eggnog too, specifically one considered a “Scottish institution” (who knew?) from the Clan MacGregor, “a lovely, forceful thing based on brandy, Bacardi, and fine old sherry.” I was never a huge fan of eggnog, from Scotland or elsewhere, preferring the milk punches that are ubiquitous in New Orleans, where I live. But that was before I tasted the version made by my friend Mimi Bowen, who grew up in Memphis and who owns a fabulous New Orleans boutique that bears her name. The recipe comes from Mimi’s grandmother and namesake Myrium Dinkins Robinson via her aunt, Lynn Robinson Williams, whom Mimi calls the “Auntie Mame of Memphis.” Aunt Lynn, who died in her bed on her ninety-sixth birthday with both a cigarette and a glass of champagne in hand, sounds like someone I would’ve actually enjoyed spending the holidays with. Well into her eighties when she finally passed the recipe along to Mimi, she put it in the mail with a note reading, “For your file. Don’t lose it.” I reprint it here exactly as she typed it.
WORLD’S GREATEST EGGNOG
4 cups bourbon
2¼ cups sugar
12 large egg yolks
8 cups whipping cream
Pour bourbon into large mixing bowl. Stir in sugar and let sit several hours. Overnight, if you can wait. Beat egg yolks until they are an ugly yellow color. Fold them into the bourbon and sugar mixture. Let sit for two hours if you can wait. Whip the cream until very stiff, fold into the bourbon and egg mixture. Let sit for one hour if you can wait. Mixture may be cut in half if you are clever enough to know how to divide 2¼ by two! Serve in cups. Serves 20–30 people. Nutmeg not permitted! ENJOY.