Saturday, February 16, 2008

Roman Punch

From the Wall Street Journal

An Icy Treat for Adults Only
February 16, 2008; Page W9

William Maxwell Evarts was one of the most powerful lawyer-politicians of the 19th century. Lead counsel for Andrew Johnson, Evarts fought off the president's impeachment and soon found himself attorney general. Years later, in the disputed election of 1876, he lawyered Rutherford B. Hayes into the White House and was promptly named secretary of state. Yet Evarts wasn't powerful enough to get a drink at a state dinner. First Lady, and temperance advocate, "Lemonade" Lucy Hayes declared the White House would be dry. One night, leaving a presidential dinner, Evarts ran into a friend who asked him how the evening had gone: "Excellently," he said. "The water flowed like champagne."

(Serves eight)
1 quart lemon ice
4-6 oz rum
4-6 oz brandy
1 oz orange curaçao or maraschino liqueur
8 oz champagne
• Blend all but champagne and freeze overnight. Just before serving, gently mix champagne into the spiked sherbet and serve in hollowed-out orange skins.

Journalist Benjamin Perley Poore recounted in his "Reminiscences of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis" that before the Hayeses came to town, "punch abounded everywhere, and the bibulous found Washington a rosy place." The bibulous were not to be denied, even by Lemonade Lucy, and came up with a way to hide the alcohol -- a spiked sherbet called Roman Punch. At White House functions, Poore recalled, the stewards served oranges that proved to be strangely popular with the guests. "Waiters were kept busy replenishing salvers upon which the tropical fruit lay . . . concealed within the oranges was a delicious frozen punch, a large ingredient of which was strong old Santa Croix rum."

. . . .
Among the requirements for a big, formal dinner in "Age of Innocence" New York were a hired chef and gilt-edged menu cards. But "the Roman punch made all the difference," Edith Wharton wrote in her great novel of high society. It wasn't that the punch was in and of itself so grand, but that it had "manifold implications" that extended well beyond the bill of fare -- "it signified either canvas-backs or terrapin, two soups, a hot and a cold sweet, full décolletage with short sleeves, and guests of a proportionate importance."

To be unfamiliar with the icy treat was the mark of a bumpkin. Elizabeth Fries Ellet, in her 1869 book about Washington society, "The Court Circles of the Republic," tells of a "rustic pair invited by some accident" to a big bash during the administration of Andrew Jackson: "A tall, strapping Kentuckian had taken a saucer of frozen Roman punch, which he had never tasted before." He turned to his date and exclaimed, "I swar, Miss Jane, this beats julep all to nothing; who ever thought of chawing rum!"

Roman Punch was still going strong at one extravagant dinner given at a hotel in New York in the early years of the 20th century. According to the 1907 "Steward's Handbook," "Roman punch was served in oranges hanging on the natural trees, the pulp of the fruit having been deftly removed so that the favored guests could pick their own." But come the Jazz Age, the slushy drink was dismissed as an affectation of those trying just a bit too hard. "A dinner interlarded with a row of extra entrées, Roman punch, and hot dessert," Emily Post wrote in her original 1922 etiquette manual, "is unknown except at a public dinner, or in the dining-room of a parvenu."

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