A friend in Alabama texted me: “In the greatest act of rebellion in my life, I am donating my mother’s crystal punch bowl and cups to Goodwill. While she’s alive. So there. Because honestly, when’s the last time you a) went to a party, and b) they served punch?”
The last time I served punch was at a UFO-themed Christmas party (yes, you read that correctly). It contained Tang and vodka and was pumped from the spigot of a two-gallon Igloo cooler that guests held champagne saucers (saucers—see what I did there?) under as if they were getting Gatorade on the sidelines of a pickleball tournament. At past parties, I’d laid out my Yazoo City, Mississippi, grandmother’s frosted glass punch bowl painted with ivy and berries and twelve matching cups, but my New York City friends didn’t know how to work it.
They said, “The cups are so small—are we allowed refills?”
They said, “What’s that in the middle?”
The answer was: an ice ring.
An ice ring is water frozen in a Bundt pan or a Jell-O mold and dumped into a cut-glass bowl typically full of hooch and Sprite. In the eighties, the ring was often made from rainbow sherbet as pastel as Diahann Carroll’s La Mirage hotel suite on Dynasty. My Birmingham grandmother’s recipe box has a Coke Punch recipe that calls for the ring to be composed of six to eight King Size Cokes. Sometimes you freeze fruit slices or cherries or grapes in the ice ring so that it looks like an aspic X-ray.
But you don’t have fruit floating in the ice ring and outside the ice ring, because that’s gauche (or as Mama would say: too much sugar for a dime). And you don’t use ice cubes, because ice cubes melt too fast, and there is nothing less appealing than ice slivers, because they scream watered-down punch and make people think of bathwater and slivers of soap. What you want in your punch bowl is an iceberg, so that if someone bobs for it, he or she chips a tooth.
Punch is vintage like perms and poodle skirts, so the best place to find a tried-and-true recipe is in a spiral-bound gravy-stained cookbook, sponsored by auto mechanics and compiled by church ladies. Recipes are for revivals and serve thirty to seventy-five. There’s never alcohol in the recipes (you know, because of God), but the alcohol is implied (you know, like the http in a website address).
When my editor read the ingredients for my Yazoo City grandparents’ 24-Hour Punch, she said it sounded like it would get you “knee-walking drunk.” But family legend has it that when my grandparents served that punch every December from the 1940s through the ’60s, nobody walked away.
Mama says, “Papa would ladle it out and then read everyone The Best Christmas Pageant Ever until they fell asleep laughing in the living room chairs. There were no Ubers then, Helen Michelle; the party was over when everyone woke up.”
Mama made the punch herself only once after college for her first dinner party. She says, “Somebody’s husband filled his infant twins’ bottles with what he thought was orange juice, and those babies slept for a day.”
My little sister got into the 24-Hour Punch when she was ten years old. Nobody realized it until we found her sitting upright on a guest bed, dazed and glittery eyed like a freshly made vampire. She’s forty-something now, and I have seen her in hospitals after childbirth and postsurgery coming out of anesthesia, and she has never looked as stunned.
What’s surprised the heck out of me during the pandemic is viral videos of people making punch in their toilets. What you do is: Cram the bowl with ice, sorbet, Sour Patch Kids, and gummy worms; then fill the empty tank with Bacardi, 7UP, and fruit punch. Flush! Lift the lid and serve.
I ask you, is this supposed to be a sanitary alternative—dogs drink out of our toilets, why shouldn’t we? Or have people forgotten how to entertain?
If you have forgotten, punch in a punch bowl is a wonderful way to baby-step back into hosting gatherings of more than six to ten. A punch bowl is a centerpiece and a showpiece that makes Cheez Whiz sprayed on celery sticks look as lavish as crab legs. A punch bowl invites guests to sip, sit, and spill some tea and sympathy. If you don’t have a punch bowl or have given yours away, try the Goodwill in Fairhope. I bet you’ll find one.
HOW TO MIX IT UP
Empty a fifth of bourbon (1 bottle) into a punch bowl. Dissolve 1 cup sugar in a fifth of water (to measure, fill the empty bourbon bottle) in a separate mixing bowl, then add the juice of 1 dozen lemons (do not squeeze too hard). Pour all of that into the bourbon and stir. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours. Number of servings: depends on how stiff-legged your guests are. To extend, you may add a Jell-O–mold ice ring (with lemon slices if you want to be fancy). Ladle out into punch cups or old-fashioned glasses—men get half an old-fashioned glass; if you have a woman who doesn’t drink a lot, fill her glass all the way to the top to see what she does. Serve with nappies of salted, roasted pecans (or homemade Chex Mix) to make sure your guests’ hands are still working.