The Gulf South has a long and bubbly relationship with spirits and wine. We know that a Frenchman who went by the name of Champagne Charlie attempted to smuggle cotton out of the port of Mobile on two blockade runners as payment for shipments of champagne during the Civil War. Even the “Gulf City Cookbook” from 1878 shares recipes of punches, champagne cups, and cocktails with varying amounts of booze, sugar and fruit. It’s no wonder, then, that festive cocktails are still an important part of holiday entertaining in the Port City.
Mobile’s bon vivant of yesteryear, Eugene Walter, was working on a cookbook upon his death that included more than a few champagne punch recipes and plenty of commentary on the subject.
“I remember moments, when I was a little brat, about 1926, when a company near my grandfather’s produce firm down on the waterfront of Mobile used to ship Champagne, each bottle insulated in a Sunday section of the Mobile Register, to old families in the driest sections of Alabama, “dry” even before Prohibition, “dry” even as I sit here now. All that hellish inheritance of the Whiskey Rebellion,” he writes in his posthumous tome of spirits and Southern culture. “When I asked what those bottles, being carefully packed into Heinz soup and Miss Louc canned vegetable cartons, contained, Mr. S., the shipper, who’d had the bottles from French freighters, gave a smile, which was a masterpiece of our (French) southern hypocrisy, ruffled my hair and said, ‘Medicine.’ He was correct, of course. Somewhere upstate, amidst joyless cults, more cultivated families still drank Champagne at christenings, at funeral feasts after Mama’s funeral, after the birth of the first male child.”
In addition to a festive punch bowl, every Deep South host should have salty nibbles at the ready while guests refill their glasses. According to Walter, however, there is one thing that should never make an appearance.
“Olives, never! I remember two Mobile Junior League ladies discussing a party by a very charming Pittsburgh colleague who’d moved to town and distinguished herself by energetic fund-raising. But after one of her Champagne-punch parties, a lady eyeing the serving table looked at her friend, raised her eyebrows, and said in a single word that summoned more than a century of tradition, nay snobbism, ‘Olives…’”
May your sideboard be full of merriment and bubbly libations — and nary an olive — this Christmas.
Recipe from “The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink”
1/2 cup candied ginger
1 bottle white rum
block of ice
1 bottle cognac
grated orange peel and mint sprigs for garnish
1. Soak ginger overnight in refrigerator in rum.
2. Put block of ice in punch bowl or bay bathtub. Slowly pour the rum, ginger and the bottle of cognac over it. Fill the punch bowl to the brim with dry champagne. Add lots of grated orange peel and mint sprigs before serving.
Punch is an easy way to serve a holiday crowd with minimal fuss! A few things to remember:
Packs a punch
While many punches can easily swap ingredients to make a non-alcoholic version, this is not one of them. The melting ice ring is the only ingredient providing relief from the stout spirits. Serve in small glasses for just the right amount of booze, or serve over ice with a big slice of orange, slightly squeezed, for a tempered taste.
Put it on ice
An easy way to dress up your punch bowl is with fancy ice rings. Any mold or cake pan can be filled with slices of citrus, cranberries, mint and other eye-catching or aromatic additives. Freeze overnight and add to your punch bowl right before pouring in the bubbly!
Bring out the silver
Antique stores everywhere are full of random silver implements, leaving modern hostesses to wonder what in the world to do with silver pickle forks, cake breaks and crystal salt cellars. While we certainly do not entertain as our Victorian forebears might have, you can find new uses for your very unusual treasures with a little creativity.
These tiny silver coupes — perfectly sized to sip a stout concoction — are actually repurposed sherbet cups, according to Mobile’s silver expert Louise Doggett. The delicate silver vessels sparkle under twinkling Christmas lights and look stunning when lined up on the bar next to a bubbling crystal punch bowl. Pull out the silver you have and find an updated use for it on your holiday table!
“Often people — myself included — tend to switch to brown liquors, red wines and dark beers when it starts to get chilly,” says Roy Clark, manager of The Haberdasher in downtown Mobile. “But our winter days here are so often mild or even downright hot that I don’t completely abandon white spirits and bright flavors.”
He says for a punch like this, he would use a super-chilled bottle of Prosecco, which is a bit sweeter than champagne, since the only other sweet element is the candied ginger.