Years ago I read in some food history book or another that the South, before the 20th century, was a culture with a serious drinking habit. The United States as a whole back then drank a lot–most of it in the form of hard liquor rather than beer or wine, and the per capita annual amount of hard liquor consumed was measured in the gallons–but southern culture was known to take drinking even beyond that.
This was driven home to me in reading Martha McCulloch-Williams’s Dishes and Beverages of the Old South, which I wrote about previously. In that book McCulloch-Williams, who was raised on a large plantation her father owned, writes about the foods she remembered from her childhood.
Liquor shows up throughout the book. Her tea recipe, she admits, is “unorthodox, but people like to drink the brew.” Her method of making the tea is pretty typical, having the cook boil water, then add a tablespoonful of tea per gallon of water, let it boil a minute, then strain into a warm container. The tea should then be served “in tall glasses with rum and lemon, or with sherry syrup, flavored with lemon, add a Maraschino cherry or so, or a tiny bit of ginger-flavored citron.” (234-5)
She has a recipe for persimmon beer (which she calls “The poor relation of champagne”) that’s unlike any other beer recipe I’ve seen. To make the beer the cook first mashes ripe persimmons and mixes those with wheat bran “to make a stiffish dough.” That dough is made into thin cakes which are baked until crisp. The cakes are broken up into a barrel filled with rain water that is then covered by a thin cloth and set in a warm, dry place. After some time–maybe days, maybe weeks, she doesn’t say–“the persimmon cakes will rise and stand in a foamy mass on top.” (73-4) You’ve got your persimmon beer.
Southerners took their liquor seriously. At several places in the book McCulloch-Williams refers to “peach and honey,” and then finally describes how it was made. “Peach and honey” was apparently the finest homemade liquor made where she grew up, although it took years to produce. One first makes homemade peach liquor (which, since that requires distilling alcohol, is illegal today) and lets the liquor stand in barrels for two years. That peach brandy is then mixed with honey, the amount of honey being up to the maker. “Some used one measure of honey to three of brandy, others put one to two, still others, half and half, qualifying the sweetness by adding neat brandy at the time of drinking.” The mixture was kept in stone jugs where it “improved mightily with age, and was, at its best, to the last degree insidious. Newly mixed it was heady, but after a year or more, was smooth as oil, and as mellow.” (244) She especially recommended using honey made from bees that fed on wild raspberries.
Peach and honey took years to make but was not especially complicated; McCulloch-Williams’s recipe for Punch á la Ruffle Shirts (pages 79-82) is faster but insanely complicated, the type of recipe that could only be feasible if one has lots of cheap labor around (i.e. slaves) and was only worth it if one was hosting very large gatherings. To make it one first peeled two dozen oranges and one dozen lemons, cutting the pith from the peel and cutting the peel into strips. “Put the pared peel in a deep glass pitcher and cover it with one quart of brandy, one quart of old whiskey, one generous pint of Jamaica rum, one tumbler of cherry bounce, one tumbler of peach liqueur, or else a tumbler of ‘peach and honey.'” That chilled for three days.
In the meantime the cook should combine the juice from all those oranges and lemons with four pounds of sugar, and put that in a container. A half pound of sugar is combined with an entire shredded pineapple in another container, and a third container is filled with half a gallon of hulled strawberries covered liberally with sugar. All of this is also chilled during the three days.
At that point the fruit is strained and the fruit juice mixed together. A gallon of weak green tea, made hot, is mixed into the liquor, and then the fruit juices are mixed in as well. To serve it all, a block of ice is placed in a punchbowl and wine (“whatever sort you prefer”) is poured in along with the liquor, in equal portions. That should stand for half an hour before serving, and at the very end cold Vichy water is added, although McCulloch-Williams gives no indication of how much water to add.
The book also has some very good-sounding recipes for peach liquor and strawberry liquor that sound amazing, and are made with commercial brandy. If you’re interested in making anything like that, this is a good place to get your recipes from.
Source: Martha McCulloch-Williams, Dishes and Beverages of the Old South (New York: McBride Nast and Company, 1915), available as a free download on Google Books.