Sunday, February 19, 2017

Paean to a Punchbowl

Richmond had a tough time in 1870. Political discord during a contentious mayoral race resulted in a highly charged trial held in a courtroom in the Virginia Capitol. The structural insecurity, or the massive weight of the crowd attending the case, resulted in a tumultuous collapse that killed dozens and wounded many more. The state and nation eulogized Robert E. Lee who died that October.  And at Christmastime, the popular Spottswood Hotel on Main Street went up in flames.
Though not the city’s finest hotel, the Spottswood earned a reputation since its creation in 1861 as a luxurious restorative in a city known for its hospitality.  Celebrities of literary and political fame called it home when they visited Richmond. A lot of memories went up in smoke with it.

Spottswood Hotel on Main Street (Library of Congress).

The loss of life in that fire was about seven individuals.  Yet a substantial number of Richmonders mourned the loss of an inanimate object from that disaster in the form of a ceramic punch bowl.  They included volunteers from the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, lawyers, judges, legislators, and other leading citizens.  The Spottswood Hotel fire destroyed the symbol of an entire generation of citizens, including Revolutionary War heroes.  

Richmond Light Infantry Blues volunteers replaced the old Quoit Club
punch bowl after the original's demise, but the taste was never the same.

That was long before Richmond became a popular tourism “food destination.” It was likewise eons before such a thing as a cocktail was conceived.  And so it was that many Richmonders reeled at the loss of a humble, chipped, much loved ceramic punch bowl just as if it a person had died.  No one is sure if there was a proper funeral for the huge (said to hold 32 quarts) ceramic symbol of fraternity and conviviality, but there certainly was a memorial of sorts as many former celebrants attempted to unsuccessfully replicate the delicious punch recipe for old time’s sake.  Try as they might, and they are still trying to this day*, the replicated versions of the punch never tasted so sweet as the original did in the cool shade of Buchanan’s Spring.  A passable recipe has been brought to our attention, though its origins in mixology are murky.  Even so, when imbibers of the excellent elixir were still alive who knew their brew, poor imitations never passed their taste test.   

 No one is sure about the origin of punch bowl or the punch recipe, but most sources agree where it came into its own.  Alternate Saturdays when the weather was fine, gentlemen and their guests retired to a place called Buchanan’s Spring for recreation and refreshments.  Today’s Carver neighborhood is close to the spot.  The Quoit, or Barbeque Club as it became known, included famous frequenters like the Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall. Samuel Mordecai in his Richmond In By-Gone Days described Buchanan’s Spring as “under the oaks of original growth, with no other shelter than the shade they afforded, and an open shed, to protect the dinner table. Quoits was the game, and toddy, punch and mint julep, the beverages, to wash down a plain substantial dinner, without wines or dessert.” 

Chief Justice John Marshall by St. Memin ( Library of Congress).

The catering was in the capable hands of Jasper Crouch.  A rotund man of color, Jasper Crouch also recruited the help of whoever was officiating as host that week to acquire and prepare the victuals. Members took turns hosting.

It is likely that other men of color like John Marshall’s major domo Robin Spurlock also assisted in the preparations.  Robin was certainly in charge of the arrangements for the monthly Sunday evening lawyer’s dinners held at the Chief Justice’s home at 9th and Marshall Streets.  There everyone who was anyone was invited to partake of an excellent array of dishes, and Madeira enjoyed pride of place as refreshment of choice. At these events, as with the Quoit Club, no one was barred due to political persuasion, thus a civility existed the likes of which we wish we had today.  Marshall had a habit of seating those of opposing viewpoints near each other.  Perhaps they agreed to disagree.  Or it is more likely than not that there was an unspoken rule not to discuss politics, as is the case with many social and civic groups that survive today in Richmond. This not only contributed to the conviviality of the club, but also the civility among its members.

Besides the catered cuisine, the featured sport of the club was that of Quoits, a ring toss game of some skill at which the Chief Justice of the United States reigned supreme.  Even as he approached old age, he was described as a graceful and skilled athlete.  It was not an uncommon to see the judge on all fours, measuring how closely the ring came to the meg with a straw.  He liked to play, but he played to win. 

Newcastle Miners playing Quoits.

The real fuel of the social discourse and sporting agility at the Quoit Club was the punch.  Some sources say there was never an overemphasis of drinking, but alcohol was then in its heyday.  As a practical matter, no one drove back then, so incapacitated celebrants could be, if the need arose, be poured into a cart or carriage and trundled home no worse for the wear.  Many popular punch recipes were served in large communal bowls.  Local lore has it that the Quoit Club punch featured, in addition to the expected fruit and alcoholic ingredients, John Marshall’s beloved Madeira. 

Marshall’s love of the Portuguese potable was life long.  He purchased Madeira by the pipe, or barrel, and maintained a generous supply wherever he went, including when he presided as Chief Justice in Washington, D.C.  One window into Marshall’s character is that he was the oldest of 15 children, so perhaps he learned growing up how to bring calm to chaos.  At any rate, as Chief Justice, he insisted that the members of the Supreme Court room together at the same boarding house.  Perhaps he reckoned that waking up, having meals, working all day together, and retiring as a body after a long day of deliberations, harmony would be achieved.  Consensus would be further assured by a soothing glass or two of Madeira at which time opposing opinions would soften.  However, there was a dark and dry period in this tradition.  At some point, the Chief Justice ruled that perhaps they were enjoying the fruit of the vine too much.  His Honor ruled that they could only drink when it was raining.  As his colleague on the Supreme Court, Justice Joseph Story related:

“It does sometimes happen that the Chief Justice will say to me, when the cloth is removed, ‘Brother Story, step to the window and see if it does not look like rain.’  And if I tell him that the sun is shining brightly, Judge Marshall will sometimes reply, ‘All the better, for our jurisdiction extends over so large a territory that the doctrine of chances makes it certain that it must be raining somewhere.’”

The Quoit Club punch likely began with a refreshing base of muddled citrus peels called oleo saccarum.  This makes a good foundation for lemonade as well as almost any other kind of punch.  Lemons, sugar, Madeira, rum, and lots of ice are the star ingredients.  A modern recipe includes the following (add your own brands):

Quoit Club Punch

(Makes one dozen cups)

Punch Base or Oleo Saccarum:  Peel at least a dozen lemons and put the peels in a large bowl.  Add sugar – use 2 ounces of sugar for each lemon’s worth of peel.  Four lemons need 8 ounces of sugar.  Muddle (mash using a heavy wooden spoon) lemon peel and work sugar into the mixture.  Take your time with this step.  This will release the fragrant lemon oil.  Leave this covered for at least one hour.  This also makes an excellent base for lemonade.
Punch: 12 lemons
2 cups sugar
750 ml. rum
750 ml. cognac
750 ml. Madeira
Squeeze lemons to produce at least 16 oz. of juice, strain to remove pips and pulp
Add oleo saccarum
Add rum, cognac, Madeira
Place generous amount of ice (one-third of bowl full)
Pour punch mixture over ice and stir.
Meet your friends and neighbors at a shaded spot and enjoy your game of Quoits!
*A modern version of the Richmond Quoit Club sponsored by Historic Richmond meets on a regular basis at historic sites all over the city. Rumor has it that they have enjoyed many incarnations of the legendary punch served at their gatherings over the years.

 - Alyson Taylor-White

Allyson is a historian and instructor of Richmond and Petersburg history at the University of Richmond.  History Press will publish her book on Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery this year.  We will soon add her to the masthead list of contributors to this blog.