“In 1732, George Washington made no entry in his diary for three days after having partaken of the punch served at the hunting and fishing club known as The Fish House.” I glanced up from The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook, and looked around Linda’s cramped, Manhattan kitchen. Long, high-ceilinged and narrow like a hallway, the kitchen’s one window looked out over the rooftops and water towers of West 99th Street. The old gas stove, circa 1940s, had four burners and a tiny oven. There was just enough room for one person to walk in-between the stove and the sink, which stood on the opposite wall, next to the refrigerator. Tall cupboards crammed with crockery, baking ingredients, stoneware bowls of every description, wooden spoons and stacks of unmatched dishes reached upwards towards the ceiling.
Over the years, patches of paint had peeled on the ceiling from the kitchen's heat. They hung like old posters on a billboard, showing the last six colors the kitchen had worn. At the dark end of the kitchen, a wood china cabinet full of chipped and mismatched teacups leaned against an old oak table, liberated from the street. One leaf was folded down against the wall. On its surface were piled dishes, bags of flour, knives and bunches of herbs, ready for chopping. Presiding over the chaos and increasingly nervous was Linda herself. Her Braintree Squash Rolls were finished just in time for the Boeuf a’la Mode to begin roasting.
It had been my idea to hold the first annual Colonial banquet. There were fifteen of us, mostly National Park Service employees, like Linda, (who worked as a Colonial balladeer in Federal Hall on Wall Street) or musicians. My roommate and guitar player, Dan and I played in Linda’s Colonial band. Maris, and Gayle were actor friends who could be counted on for any good party. Each of us had agreed to make a dish or two from an 18th c. recipe. I had volunteered to make Fish House Punch.
“Let’s see, I need rum, Jamaican rum and peach brandy, along with lemon juice, sugar and a couple of peaches,” I muttered as I made my shopping list. “I’m just going down the corner for the liquors,” I yelled to Linda, who gave me a frazzled nod as I left. It didn’t take me long to make my purchases; and in no time, I was riding the airless red-walled elevator to Linda’s eighth-floor apartment. “Can you find a bowl I can mix the punch in?” I asked. Linda’s long brown curly hair was cascading wildly over her shoulders and sticking to her neck from the oven’s heat.
“Here,” she said, handing me a big wooden bowl and spoon. "There’s sugar, measuring cups and a glass of sherry for you on the table. Do you want an apron?” Linda glanced at the clock while we drained out sherries. “Do you think we’ll be ready in an hour?” she added.
I pulled the apron over my own curls. “Oh sure,” I said, pouring the rum into the bowl, "Dan should be here any minute and he can help set up the room.” As if on cue, the buzzer rang, startling us. We both burst out laughing. I added the sugar to the bowl and was stirring when Dan popped into the room. Rushing to him, Linda said, somewhat breathlessly; “Dan, we need you to set up tables in a line.” She pointed to several folding tables leaning against the living room wall.
I gave the punch a taste, made a face, and added more rum. I sipped it again while I watched Dan struggle with the rickety tables. “Way too much peach brandy; I can barely taste the rum.” I added a quarter cup of rum and sipped again, “Still tastes like brandy. I tried yet another adding a quarter cup. The yeasty-rich odor of Linda’s squash rolls was making my empty stomach growl. “I’m starving!” I wined; “I skipped breakfast.”
It was 1984. I had suffered through four months of having to maintain a ‘white foods only’ diet; still prescribed back then to help cure duodenal ulcers: nothing spicy, acidic, caffeinated or alcoholic (pretty much everything I enjoyed). This was to be my first decent meal; my Colonial ‘coming-out’ party. I was more than ready for it; “Here, you guys, come and taste this,” I said dipping out a small serving for each of us.
“Hm…you’re right. You can’t taste the rum enough; just the peach brandy. The recipe doesn’t make much, does it?” Linda said. “I think we’re gonna need some more.” She frowned at the mixture in the bowl.
“You’re right. Listen…can you run back to the liquor store, Dan? We have to double the recipe for there to be enough,” I said, looking back at the book. I was starting to sweat; people were about to arrive. I added the remaining rum and sipped another spoonful. When Dan returned with more rum and peach brandy, I added them to the punch along with more sugar. "Okay," I mumbled, "Just a tad more lemon juice. Then there will be enough for everyone to have a taste. After all, people will be bringing wine, Madeira, and Cherry Bounce.”
I looked around the room. Linda had begun to light the candles she had placed on every available surface. The three tall windows over the couch which looked out at the back of the apartments on W. 98th St. let in the late afternoon light. Across the alley someone was vocalizing. A distant siren wailed.
The buzzer rang again, making me jump. Maris breezed in, carrying a tray of lemon tarts, "Bobbie!" she exclaimed, enveloping me in an embrace of her black curls and silken scarves. Linda rushed out of the kitchen, hugged her and pointed to a pile of napkins in a chair. Again, the buzzer rang as we removed our aprons and placed a napkin at each setting. "How have you been feeling? The ulcer, I mean. Has it healed?" Maris asked.
I was about to answer as Margie entered with a casserole dish. "Hi!" she said, waving over her shoulder, vanishing into the kitchen. Margie, a singer and actor, worked at the food co-op and was a vegetarian. (The Colonists were not big vegetable eaters. I vaguely wondered what she had brought.) The buzzer seemed louder with each ring. Linda was lighting more candles. The room was shimmering with flickering light. I was hot. The room was beginning to fill with people. I had to sit down.
Olga, Terri, and Tom who worked at Federal Hall with Linda Park service came in bearing bottles of wine and covered dishes. Tom was resplendent in his blue militia waistcoat, white breeches, boots. He removed his tricorn hat in a sweeping bow; “Ladies and…sir,” he greeted us”
Gayle from downstairs, VonRae and Ernie, Katherine and Harriet entered, all carrying food. Everyone was laughing, greeting and squeezing past each other, trying not to trip over the legs of the rockers, chairs and stools that had been drawn up to the line of uneven tables draped in various tablecloths stretching the length of the room. Colognes mingled in the air.
Mark and Wayne were the last to arrive. They had started out as fans of Linda, showing up at so many performances that they had become part of our little group of colonial performers and reenactors; sort of 20th c. camp followers.
“Hi everyone! Come take a look at our Floating Islands.” People crowded forward to see the soft custard with whipped egg whites which would be "floated" on top just prior to serving. I stayed seated. Linda had begun placing the food on the table: Boeuf a'la Mode, Pease Pottage, a “Made Dish” with chicken, squash rolls, corn bread. Lastly, she placed a pewter tankard at each place setting and announced, "All right everyone, come take your seats so we can have a toast!”
The din and the heat were having a bad effect upon me. Picturing Mark and Wayne’s “Floating Islands” had made my stomach sink. Maris, who sat opposite was smiling at me. Her lips were moving, so I knew she was asking me a question. As soon as I opened my mouth, I knew I was in trouble. I meant to ask, "How are you, Maris?" What came out sounded like,"Owr you Morrish?"
"Attention, attention everyone. I would like to propose a toast," Linda said, her face glowing as she took her place at the head of the table. She flipped her hair back and raised her tankard. Everyone stood. "First of all, we have to thank Bobbie for making us this Fish House Punch. Bobbie, do you wish to say anything about it?" Having wobbled to my feet, I swayed slightly, shaking my head, "No."
"To the ships of our navy and the women of our land: may our ships be well-rigged and our women, well-manned!" shouted out Dan. Cries of "Huzzah!" broke out as everyone downed their punch. I tried to take a sip as we all sat down and began heaping our plates. Someone filled my wineglass. The slice of Boeuf a la Mode rolled with forcemeat lay on my plate next to a scalloped oyster. Cream and butter oozed together, mixing with the meat juice. The expectant hunger I had felt earlier had been replaced by a sour taste rising up from the depths of my empty stomach.
"Bobbie, tell the story about how you met Linda and ended up playing music with her," asked Maris. It was a good story; I would have liked to tell it, or, for that matter, any story, but my mouth was unavailable. I waved her off, pretending to take a bite of my roll. Maris was not about to give up, however.
"Then tell the story of how you got lost in Grand Central Station and met Dan," she begged. I shook my head, which felt like a water balloon. "Oh come on, Bobbie, tell us!" Maris insisted. I looked down as someone ladled Pease Pottage into a bowl. With what I hoped was great dignity, I got to my feet and squeezed my way in-between the backs of guests and Linda's furniture. Linda gave me a quizzical glance as I passed her chair and disappeared down the hall to the bathroom. The din of the riotous diners, accompanied by Colonial music faded as I closed the door. I had never felt closer to our founding father, George.
There followed a year of my being teased at all of Linda's gatherings. We would, for example, be having Thanksgiving dinner and someone would say, "Yeah, remember the time Bobbie made Fish House Punch?" Then Linda would say, "Maris kept asking her questions, and you know what a storyteller Bobbie normally is! We all knew something was wrong because she was so quiet!" Then everyone would roar with laughter. It wasn't bad enough that I had to endure a lot of good-natured kidding; I was back on a bland diet.
I was determined to be healed in time for the next annual Colonial banquet. So, I ate mostly white food, punching out the wall occasionally at the injustice of life, and lost more weight. My ulcer healed. The date of the 2nd annual Colonial banquet arrived.
I arrived early to help cook and set things up, and placed the dish I had brought on the table in the kitchen. Linda gave me a knife and a pile of potatoes to slice, "What are we making here?" I asked.
"Scalloped Potatoes...to go with the lamb dish. See? The book should be open to it," Linda said glancing over her shoulder at me from the sink. I looked at the cover of the book: “The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook."
"You know, I was never able to figure out why the punch hit me so hard," I told Linda. "I mean, I can't remember getting drunk like that since I was in college!” Despite myself, I couldn’t help flipping to the index. There it was, pages ninety-four through ninety-five: Fish House Punch. I looked over the ingredients list on page ninety-four:
1 Fifth lemon or lime juice 1 Fifth brandy
1 cup sugar 1 cup peach brandy
1 Fifth water 2 peaches, peeled and sliced
2 Fifths Jamaican rum
“Oh…my…gosh…Linda, I know what happened! I thought “A fifth” meant a fifth part. But it really meant a fifth of a gallon bottle!” Linda wiped her hands on her apron and read over the recipe with me, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “When the amount of punch yielded only a couple of cups of liquid, I kept adding more rum and brandy. Remember how I kept tasting to correct the mixture because it didn’t taste right?” Linda gave me a blank look. “Oh Jeez……I never even read the paragraph below! Listen to this. “Chill the mixture thoroughly before pouring over a good-sized chunk of ice in a punchbowl…Serves approximately 40 4-ounce punch glasses…. Double the water content if a less potent punch is preferred.”
However potent the Fish House Punch served to Washington had been, the punch I had made was more than twice as strong. I never again attempted this recipe, despite yearly requests from fellow Colonial banquet-eers. The only “fifth” I felt comfortable taking, when it came to Fish House Punch, was the Amendment.
Bobbie Wayne has a BA (music) and an MFA (Art.) She was a painter (Abstract, Portrait, and sign), music therapist, singer/songwriter, and plays Celtic harp. Her stories are published in The Ravens Perch online magazine, Intrinsick online magazine, SLAB magazine, Blueline Literary Journal, and Colere Literary magazine.