The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.53
SUMMER2017

A note on the 1793 Charleston Light Dragoons’ Punch.

The date refers to formation of the military unit rather than the original formula, but its constituent parts indicate that this excellent punch could indeed date to the eighteenth century.

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Husk bartender Weaver, a noted maker of 1793 CLDP

In this context ‘military’ may be a bit of a descriptive stretch for these dragoons during most of their history, although they did play a role for a stretch of the Civil War. The unit was primarily what New Englanders call a ‘chowder and marching society’ that would assemble for the sake of conviviality as much as drill and, like the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston, might look colorful on parade.

Until 2011 the Light Dragoons’ punch amounted to a nearly lost recipe, forgotten by all but a few extravagant hosts scattered across North America. Then Roderick Weaver, the head bartender at Husk, revived it. According to Jed Portman, a blogger at seriouseats.com, it is one of only two combinations left from the restaurant’s first barcard “while plenty of other drinks have come and gone around it.” (“Down South”)

Whether Portman is a reliable source about the origin of the formula that Weaver follows at Husk is open to question. He asserts that a habitué of the bar saw mention of the punch in the records of the Charleston Historical Society, but apparently not its recipe. That, he says, surfaced when a friend of the barfly in turn “recognized the punch from an old cookbook.” (“Down South”)

The Editor has found reference to Charleston Light Dragoon punch in only two ‘old cookbooks,’ Charleston Receipts from 1950 and a 1908 oddity with the succinct title Famous Old Recipes Used a Hundred Years and More in the Kitchens of the North and South Contributed by the Descendants, “compiled by” Jacqueline Harrison Smith. Smith calls her formula ‘Dragoon Punch,’ but leaves no doubt that we are dealing with the drink drunk by the Charleston mounted militia:

“This punch is known as Dragoon punch, and has been made by Mr. Louis F. Sloan, of Charleston, for the last 50 years, for the Charleston Light Dragoons, and has become famous…. and this is the first time it has ever been in print.” (Smith 189)

The formulae from Charleston Receipts and Famous Old Recipes are nearly congruent. Each of them incorporates whiskey (although Receipts specifies rye), light rum, Grenadine, Curaçao, green tea, simple syrup, sparkling water and Carmen Miranda’s hat; maraschino cherries, lemons, oranges and pineapple.

This, however, is not the punch at Husk, and is not nearly as appealing. Nor is it likely the real 1793 thing, assuming that Smith is correct about its pedigree (not necessarily a prudent assumption) because delving fifty years back from the first edition of Famous Old Recipes (1906) gets us only to the midpoint of the nineteenth century.

Other bloggers date the origin of the punch to either 1783 or 1738; from this it would appear that the likely source of the discrepancy was a hurried hack transposing the numbers.

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Back to Portman, his identification of the Charleston Historical Society as the source of the reference to the punch stands at odds with the attribution provided by Husk itself. Their barcard reads “Recipe from Charleston Preservation Society” (more properly the Preservation Society of Charleston but that would be to quibble) next to the punch without reference either to the historical society or to old cookbooks. The people actually making the drink ought to know where they found its formula. For what it is worth, the 1783 blogger concurs with the author of the barcard.

It may be the case that neither Charleston Receipts nor Old Fashioned Recipes is wrong about the contents of Charleston Light Dragoon punch, or rather a Charleston Light Dragoon punch. According to Elizabeth May, who identifies it the same way as the two books, “[t]here are many versions of this punch” and she seems to have a strong footing: “This was my grandfather’s. He called it the ‘iron fist in the velvet glove.’”

May is an interesting figure, an MP at Ottawa and the leader of the Green Party of Canada who posts recipes on her website at www.elizabethmaymp.ca, including the one for her grandfather’s punch. American politicians should take note, both of the chosen postings and the punch.

It is, and this will be gratifying for our readers to know, the same as the punch served at Husk, so the Editor’s prior reference to its dissemination through North America was no random throwaway. This superior variant relies on Jamaican, that is, properly dark, rum, brandy and citrus for alcohol, strong black tea for nuance and caffeine (this was an eighteenth century energy drink), lemons alone for fruit; no sticky liqueurs, no sweetened Miranda flourishes from a can or jar. It sounds more authentic from the streamlined ingredients.

Joseph Dabney picks up the thread in The Food, Folklore, History, and Romance Handed Down from England, Africa, the Caribbean, France, Germany, and Scotland. Perhaps, based on the length of his title and its reference to descent, Dabney is familiar with Famous Old Recipes; or perhaps not, but again we digress.

His is a wonderful book replete with historical research, illuminating quotations, travel tips and accessible recipes. Dabney writes well and wears his erudition lightly so Food, Folklore, History and Romance is not only a pirate’s chest of information but also a delight to read. Among many other things, Dabney is right to note that lowcountry foodways evolved from a smaller pool of antecedents than many of its advocates would claim. First among them is England:

“It was in Charleston in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the four major elements of the Lowcountry’s distinctive cuisine evolved--a mix of English, West Indian, French and West African cooking--to create food fit for a king, or more to the point, for the Lowcountry era’s wealthy merchants and planters.” (Dabney 77)

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There is much to consider and to like in this single sentence. Charleston initially was settled by colonists from Barbados, culturally the most English of the Caribbean colonies, much of the West Indian cuisine that helped create lowcountry foodways itself owes a big debt to England; slaves arrived at Charleston predominantly direct from West Africa; and Huguenots fleeing French persecution formed a big chunk of the city’s elite from its earliest days. The Germans and Scots of his title are not forgotten; they settled inland.

It was Charleston itself, rather than any plantation or more generally rural enclaves that, in contrast to Virginia and the other southern colonies, dominated lowcountry culture, for South Carolina was by far the most urban of them and even upcountry planters kept extravagant house in the city.

Of course, as Dabney also notes, what sets the traditional food of the lowcountry apart is not fusion but rather transformation, the marriage of “Old World culinary arts to New World staples.” As the scholar he quotes notes, the elements of “the South Carolina diet came from the entire Atlantic and Mediterranean world” because Charleston was a significant port throughout the colonial and federal periods and its merchants traveled widely. “Real sophistication came from incorporating this international experience with the plain and local items of diet.”(Dabney 78; Rogers 79)

The Editor is predisposed to trust Dabney and, happily enough, his formula for “Charleston Light Dragoons’ Punch” does match those at Husk, in British Columbia and now, ours.

 

Sources:

Ida Becker, Charleston Icons: 50 Symbols of the Holy City (Acton MA 2009)

Joseph Dabney, The Food, Folklore, History, and Romance Handed Down From England, Africa, the Caribbean, France, Germany and Scotland (Naperville IL 2010)

Elizabeth May, www.elizabethmaymp.ca (accessed 4 June 2013)

Jed Portman, “Down South: An Antebellum Punch for the Holidays,” www.seriouseats.com/2102/12/down_south_charleston_light_dragoons_punch_husk.html (accessed 4 June 2013)

George Rogers, Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys (Columbia SC 1984)

Jaqueline Harrison Smith, Famous old Recipes Used a Hundred Years and More in the Kitchens of the North and the South Contributed by Descendants (Philadelphia 1908)