Friday, November 12, 2010

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Gretchen Worden’s Fish House Punch (and a Funky Manger)

My first encounter with a bowl of punch — not the frat house version slopped together from whatever alcohol is cheap and plentiful, but a more stately Philadelphia Fish House Punch — left me positively besotted.

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 Punch

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.”
I might add: serve it in small cups.


Nancy Baggett said...

As usual, an entertaining post. Yeah, serving in small cups sounds like a good idea.

frederic said...

When we made the recipe, we tried Crème de Peche de Vigne. It has a great peach flavor without seeming fake; however, it was too subtle to really pick out in the recipe I used (4 oz per 100-120 oz bowl) but might work well in Gretchen's recipe.

And yes, getting everything cold is key. I put all the booze bottles in the freezer overnight and everything else in the fridge so when it is mixed, it already has a good head start on chilling and if your party is in full swing, ice isn't even necessary.

Matthew Rowley said...

It's a necessity, Nancy!

Fred, what did you think of the punch? It has wrecked havoc among some of my friends, but everyone gave it thumbs up.

Ben Robling said...

Matt, this reminds me of having the pleasure of catsitting for Earl and having a night of access to your esteemable culinary volumes. Punch was gratis. I awoke at 6 AM next to an empty bottle, a volume of Turkish cookery my pillow, an outstretched cat around my face like a mink stole. Thanks for the recipe!

Unknown said...

My dad had this recipe pasted in the front of his Mr. Boston's guide. It had been clipped from the old Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper in the 70s.

The first time I made it, I didn't realize that the large quantity of liquor would be so expensive (poor college student, so I bought the Blue Curacao instead of the Orange Curacao because it was 20 cents cheaper (POOR college student).

The Blue Curacao mixes with the yellow lemon juice to turn the entire thing bright screaming green. Surprise!!

Therefore, as far as I know, I am the official innovator of Green Fish House Punch.

Feel free to freak out your guests the next time you try this recipe.

Matthew Rowley said...

Ahahahaha ~ I'm still smiling over the blue curaçao. I had a bottle of the stuff for years, moved it three times and used, maybe, five ounces in all that time. Screamin' greenness was the punch?

Ben ~ I remember that. If I'm not mistaken, Gretchen was still alive when you got the feline throat warmer. Best use those Voss bottles ever got put.