There’s been much to celebrate in the last few weeks: Mark’s and my 30th wedding anniversary, my 55th birthday, and the graduation of a bunch of middle schoolers heading to private high schools whom I’ve gotten to know through Beacon Academy, a one-year academic boot camp. I volunteered to help plan and prepare for the graduation reception, which fell on my birthday. The committee opted to serve tea, whole strawberries, and homemade cookies, which seemed great to me, but not sufficiently festive. It took me a minute to figure out what was missing. Punch.
No formal celebration falling in spring or summer would omit the fizzy concoction, in my mind. But punch wasn’t an intuitive choice for this committee of New Englanders. In an email, I pitched punch as a beverage that conjured, for me, “patent leather shoes, caps’n’gowns, the shine of sweat on upper lips, accomplishment.” I wasn’t suggesting we serve Hawaiian Punch or, for that matter, anything spiked with Everclear or rum.
For a recipe, I turned to the copy of Helen Corbitt’s Pot Luck I inherited from my mother. Corbitt was the trailblazing executive chef for Stanley Marcus and the department store Neiman-Marcus. You can learn more about her here, in this lively piece by Prudence Mackintosh from 1999 that ran in TexasMonthly magazine. Corbitt’s pickled black-eyed peas are a part of my annual New Year’s Day menu, and I bake her crisp, thin oatmeal lace cookies to put smiles on even the glummest of faces.
Here, forthwith, is Corbitt’s alchemical recipe for “Sherbet Punch”: “2 quarts gingerale, 1 quart sherbet (pineapple or orange best) will serve 20 people” (Pot Luck, 160). The sherbet goes into the bottom of the punch bowl. The gingerale goes on top, slowly. A layer of fizzy foam ensues. The socially awkward can always be counted on to ladle the concoction into cups to avoid having to make small talk.
Imagine me pushing a cart heavy with a dozen bottles of soda along the aisles of my grocer’s freezer section in search of sherbet. Friendly’s Double Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough? Check. Talenti Blood Orange Sorbetto? Check. Almond Dream Cappuccino Swirl? Check. The blocky cartons of lime or orange sherbet of my childhood? Nowhere to be found. At last, I spied Lucerne Rainbow Sherbet. Dowdy, plastic tubs filled with a swirl of imitation flavored raspberry, orange, and lime. A quick read of the label: “Skim Milk, Sugar, Water, Corn Syrup, Cream, Raspberry Flavor (Raspberry Juice Concentrate, Citric Acid, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Red 40, Blue 1)…” In short, perfection. I piled all available tubs into my cart.
And imagine my delight as I, in party clothes and wearing a tatty apron, assembled the secret ingredients into bowls as beaming graduates, their beaming families, and their beaming teachers and mentors lined up to enter the social hall for the reception. A little boy approached. Might he just have the “ice cream?” Sure, I told him. But first, I said, how about you try a little punch?