Richard Foss

Mr. Micawber’s Holiday Punch

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Our food writer explains how to celebrate Christmas with Dickens' favorite beverage

“Micawber,” pen and ink illustration by Hablot Browne for the original publication of David Copperfield.

It’s the time of year when people pull out their worn copies of Dickens, and if they’re paying attention they’ll notice Charles was quite a sensualist when it came to food and drink. When he talks about a bad meal you’re disgusted, and when he describes a good meal you get hungry. This is the case even though he’s referring to English food, which most Americans aren’t all that fond of. It’s a compliment to him as a writer that along with the tears he evokes with the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop and the laughter at the jolly but clueless Mr. Pickwick, he can make modern readers hungry for mutton, goose, and mushroom pudding.

Dickens also wrote about the drinks of his era, never more lyrically than when he described the chronically broke Wilkins Micawber making an alcoholic rum punch.

“I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.”

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Many writers have celebrated the delights of drinking cocktails, but here is the great example of someone describing the joy of making them. But what is this elixir that he celebrated, and would a modern person like it? Might it be part of a modern Christmas celebration?

The answer is that it’s delicious, a kind of hot alcoholic lemonade with the sweet and tart flavors accented by fragrant lemon oil and spices. It’s also not difficult to make. [See below].

Producing it is an impressive party trick. Turn the lights low as you light it and the flickering blue flames rising from the pot will have your guests transfixed. (No matter how much they want to get just one more video, don’t let it burn too long or you’ll lose most of the alcohol.) When you taste it, you’ll experience the Victorian love of fruity, spice-laden, mildly alcoholic hot drinks.

Besides that punch, these include the mulled wine that fills the air at parties with the scent of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, orange peel, and rose hips. You know you’re in a room with it as soon as you enter, because the warm alcohol picks up the oils of clove, citrus, and spices and aromatizes the room. Both white and red wines can be used for this purpose, but the favorite was port. This was enjoyed everywhere and by everyone – in 1861 Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management opined “As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it.” That sentence alone tells you a great deal about how Victorian standards for raising children differ from ours.

You have probably read about the most famous hot wine punch without knowing it. Right at the end of “A Christmas Carol,” when Scrooge has had a change of heart, he tells Bob Cratchit, “We will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!” It’s safe to say that most Americans have no idea what a bowl of smoking bishop might be. To make smoking bishop you stud oranges with cloves, roast them, and then add their spice-infused juice to a punchbowl of port wine, hot water, and sugar. When Scrooge uttered that phrase using Cratchit’s first name, he was indicating that he intended to treat him as an equal and offered a favored drink of wealthy people like himself.

There are many other winter drinks that are suited to Christmas: hot buttered rum, brandy flips with hot cream and egg, and even mulled ale, hot dark beer with the same spices used in mulled wine. These are rarely seen in bars because they take time to make and Americans don’t know to ask for them, but if you want to show some traditional style at your holiday gathering there’s no better way to do it. Give the toast for the season, “Wassail!” and in doing so wish your guests good health in a blessing that goes back to Anglo-Saxon times.

Charles Dickens’s Punch*

From a letter Charles Dickens sent to Amelia Austin Fillonneau, dated January 18, 1847, with the note, “I hope it will make you a beautiful punchmaker in more senses than one.” (See below for a version with modern measurements.)

To make three pints of punch, peel into one very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket), the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double handful of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy — if it not be a large claret glass, say two. Set this on fire by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. Let it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up five minutes, and stir again.

At this crisis, having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon, you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven 10 minutes, or on a hot stove one-quarter of an hour. Keep it until it comes to the table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours take the lemon peel out, or it will have a bitter taste.  

Recipe reprinted with permission from Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl by David Wondrich, Perigee Books, copyright 2010.


A contemporary approach to Charles Dickens’ punch

Use a crockpot so you don’t have to move the punch around, and heat the sugar, peels, and alcohol to medium before setting the fire. This will take at least fifteen minutes and will greatly reduce any danger of cracking the crock.

Use six ounces of Demerara sugar, 20 ounces of rum and 6 ounces of Courvoisier VSOP, the kind Dickens kept in his cellar. David Wondrich’s Punch has an essay on recommended rums. Brands include Smith & Cross and Sea Wynde. For large parties I use Jamaican medium dark rum or a mix of Myers’ dark and an amber rum – the more expensive rums make a slightly better product.  Instead of Courvoisier you can use Raynal brandy, which has a cognac flavor but is far less expensive.

The fire melts the sugar and extracts the oil from the lemon peel. Dickens’ advice about lighting the spirits in a warm metal spoon works, but a barbecue lighter is even better. Do not try to light the whole pot while holding the match in your hand. Note that alcohol burns with a pale blue flame, so if you are in a bright room you may not be able to see the fire.

Dickens used the British quart, which is 20 ounces, rather than the American – this recipe calls for 40 ounces of water. After pouring but before serving add a dash of cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg into each cup for an aromatic delight.

The punch can be drunk hot or cold, and if you remove the lemon peel will keep for days if kept cool and sealed. Dickens was a master punchmaker, and the sweet and sour flavor will delight your guests. When you serve it, raise a glass to the master of literature and hospitality.

*The author is not responsible for kitchen fires or inebriation as a result of trying this recipe.*


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