Gretchen Worden was a friend, but she was also director of the Mütter Museum. Housed in Philadelphia’s College of Physicians, the Mütter is a museum of medical history and pathological anatomy. I’d moved to Philadelphia as a young curator with a few freshly minted anthropology degrees for the opportunity to work with that collection.
Just before Christmas 1996, Gretchen hosted a gathering at her home for friends and employees. Our holiday chit-chat was less about Santa and his elves than disease and deformities. At this party in her home were two things I‘d never encountered. The first was a little manger scene that had grown over the years to spread over most of her fireplace mantle. In addition to the traditional stable, shepherds, wise men, and whatnot, it included toys ranging from a dollhouse refrigerator and microwave to Star Wars action figures. There were plastic fly larvae (“Gift of the Maggots,” she wryly quipped out of the side of her mouth. Leaning in closer, she placed her hand on my arm and confided: “They glow in the dark.”). Joseph was holding a camcorder, R2D2 had joined the shepherds’ flock and I think — though certain memories of the evening are less reliable — that the manger itself was occupied by either Yoda or one of the brown-frocked jawas.
The other thing I’d never seen before was a big bowl of Fish House Punch, a compounded drink that dates back to Philadelphia's colonial past. I didn’t realize anyone made it anymore, but it turned out that for years Gretchen had been whipping up and aging batches of it using an 1950’s recipe. The technique isn’t what you might see in high-end bars today, but the effect is no less potent. She advised serving it very cold so that one did not have to dilute it with ice. Wicked, wicked woman.
As an experienced homebrewer of beers and ales, the tiny punch cups (little more than demitasses, really) that accompanied the bowl seemed, well, stingy. Used to quaffing homemade beverages in great quantity, that’s exactly what I did. Frequent refilling required us to gather around the bowl. As a result, the conversation flowed like punch.
I do not recall how I got home.
I do not recall whether any Fish House Punch was left.
I do not recall whether I dreamed of baby Yoda or glow-in-the-dark Yule maggots.
I do not recall, most pointedly, wanting another drink for several days.
Gretchen’s recipe is not a wholly authentic recreation of 18th Century Fish House Punch, but it is sly and potent. The peach brandy I used to make it was sheer bootleg — and really good — but drinks writer David Wondrich has suggested elsewhere that a 3:1 blend of bonded applejack to “good, imported peach liqueur” might work as a substitute. You may try commercial examples from Peach Street Distillers or Kuchan Cellars.
From my 2007 book Moonshine!, here’s
Gretchen Worden’s Fish House PunchI might add: serve it in small cups.
1 quart lemon juice (about 4 dozen lemons, squeezed)
1 ½ lb sugar
1 pint curacao, tangerine brandy or orange flavored liquor
1 pint dark rum
1 pint Benedictine
1 quart peach brandy
1 gallon bourbon
1 pint strong cold tea.
In Gretchen’s precise words, “Put the above gut-rot in a three-gallon jug and shake the hell out of it. Place the jug in a cool place and shake it once a day for at least three weeks; two months is better. Do not cork it tightly and keep it cool or chilled or else the lemon juice will cause the whole thing to go off. Serve chilled, not over ice.”