I get a certain feeling in autumn: a cocktail mix of memory, wistfulness, retrospect and melancholy. Summer is leaving us and the leaves are turning. So while the band plays “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve, with me its lyrics waft most vividly here in this stretch of warm, long-fading sunset. This is when I want punch, real punch, that of ancestors and history. I want Fish House Punch.
In the annals of—and before—our nation’s foundation, never has a specific beverage held such a symbolic position amid the wraiths of George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette and other elder statesmen come and gone. In 1732, fully 104 years before Texas declared itself a Republic, Schuylkill (pronounced “SKOO-kull”), home of Fish House Punch, was its own colony, and later its own sovereign state. It must’ve been quite a place, too. It had a Navy (well, two boats). It had an army (OK, a cannon). At its core it was a club: The Schuylkill Fishing Company. Everyone fished, ate, toasted and drank, happily shielded from domestic care. Located between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers in what is now Pennsylvania, the “Colony in Schuylkill” became the “State in Schuylkill” in 1782, upon the event of American Independence.
A recipe as old as Fish House Punch, fervently slurped by the Father of Our Country, has inevitably gone through many fanciful formulations. Jerry Thomas related a simple (and probably accurate) recipe using lemon juice, sugar, water, peach brandy, Cognac and rum in 1862. Another was contributed by Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in 1907 that added oranges, strawberries or pineapple but called the addition of green tea “an abomination.” I was once a guest in the Kansas City home of Mrs. Walton Hall Smith, whose long-departed husband, in 1939, penned the book Liquor, the Servant of Man. Mrs. Smith was famed for having an eternal bowl of Fish House Punch in her refrigerator. Visitors lived in mortal fear of it. Why? In her words (in a classic Katharine Hepburn accent), “Mr. Haigh, I always felt they muddled the recipe up with too many ingredients. I make mine with just the liquor!” I loved it, but the rest of the guests were looking a bit green around the gills.
My contrary favorite, though, is the following dandification from 1893, the year of the first World’s Fair, from a little book titled Beverages & Sandwiches For Your Husband’s Friends by One Who Knows.
Perhaps it seems long ago, when tradition and convivial dignity still attached themselves to the invocation of this bowl. Your Doctor is shouldering the mantle of remembrance and thinks you should do the same. And you might ask, what of the grand old Schuylkill Fishing Company? Research will tell you little of it since the 1930s, but it lives on in the same building (“the Castle”) it has occupied since 1812—moved lock, stock and bowl to its current plot in 1937—and was lovingly restored in 2000. Intensely private, its 30 members are well-to-do captains of industry called “citizens,” attended by a coterie of apprentices who aspire to full honors, cooking for the citizens, flipping pans full of sizzling fish in exacting fashion, and awaiting their own citizenship and unrestrained draughts of Fish House Punch.