by Brenda W. Clough
It is said of modern novels that, whatever other problems the characters have, at least they can have a lot of sex. This cannot be said of literary characters of the past, when the emotional side of their lives mostly was ignored by the author (looking at you, J.R.R. Tolkien) in favor of Big Stuff like battles and wars. And it is one very obvious difference in, say, romance novels of the past and those of the modern day. A Nookie Tally and you can almost predict a novel’s copyright date.
However, our literary ancestors had other sensual pleasures. If you go back a couple of generations of best-sellers, the characters in Charles Dickens’ works may not have leaped in and out of beds like porn stars. But boy, did they have great food! The luckier denizens of Dickens novels ate like kings: goose, turkey, roasts of beef, bowls of wassail that spouted blue flame and took eight thirsty men two hours to get to the bottom of — all the foods that we unhappy lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, weight-loss, vegan, low-carb moderns must eschew. Since it is the Christmas season, we have all had a good strong dose of The Christmas Carol recently. I was inspired by this section, which as all good English majors know occurs just about at the end of the novel:
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. `”A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit.”
Smoking bishop, oh wow! No wonder Tiny Tim refused to die after all! A little research reveals that this charming punch is quintessentially Victorian right down to that vaguely anti-Papist name. It’s basically a winter sangria — red wine with citrus and spices, sweetened with port and served hot — smoking. With its deep red color it is a perfect beverage for the holidays and far tastier, IMHO, than wassail, which is a mixture of cider and ale. There are a number of period recipes, which tend to run either very large in quantity or overly-sweet. I adapted Tori Avey‘s slightly for my own palate:
5 oranges, or 4 oranges and 1 grapefruit
30 whole cloves
1/2 stick cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp mace
an inch or so of fresh ginger root, chopped
1 bottle red wine (no need to go all vintage here, since you are heating it)
1 Tbs sugar
2 cups ruby port wine (I used Sandeman’s, which was in my grocery store)
Scrub the fruit to get any wax off, and peel off any labels. Stick the cloves into 5 oranges and one of the lemons, and put them into a roasting pan. Turn the oven on to 300 degrees and roast the fruit for an hour or so, until they start to fade in color and smell great.
While they cook, put the spices and ginger into a small saucepan with the sugar and a cup of water. Bring it to a boil and boil it until it reduces by half.
When the fruit is done take it out of the oven and put it into a deep bowl or dish — I used a Corningware casserole. The oranges have to all fit in in one layer at the bottom, and ideally fill the pan pretty well, otherwise they won’t be under the surface of the liquid. Pour the sugar mixture and the bottle of wine in, cover the dish and put it someplace warm, if possible, to steep overnight. If you get a chance to, turn all the fruit over at some point.
When you are ready to serve, take the fruit out of the wine and cut it in half. Use a hand juicer or reamer and juice it all, adding the pulp and juice to the wine and discarding the rinds. Pour the entire mixture through a strainer into a medium saucepan, using a spoon to press all the juice out of the pulp. Heat the wine until it is hot, and then start adding port. Depending on how sweet your red wine originally was, how sour your oranges were, and how you like it, you might wind up adding half or three-quarters of a bottle. I put in about two cups, which tastes just great! Be sure to do your tasting when it’s hot, so that you can judge it properly. Also frequent testing makes the cook cheerful. Don’t let the mixture boil, and serve either in a heatproof punch bowl or (since you probably do not own Victorian serveware) straight out of the pot. Garnish each cup with thin slices of lemon.
Serves 6 or 8 people a cup each. Tell all your guests that the alcohol cooked off, and quote Dickens. It is not at all difficult to convince people that it is a literary experience. And God bless us, every one!
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.