New Orleans, like every other American city, cherishes its holiday traditions. Local families still treasure their homemade holiday beverage recipes popular in the 18th and 19th century. These drinks appear annually during Christmas, New Year’s Day and the Carnival season.
Brandy milk punch is one that remains popular during all the seasonal holidays, but continues to be a favorite in restaurants year round as well. The original milk punch recipe can be traced back to 17th century England when a female dramatist named Aphra Bean was one of the first to copy out the recipe, making it available for posterity. (1) In this country Benjamin Franklin’s recipe from 1763 is one of the most famous among many other punch recipes.
Today brandy milk punch is currently categorized and marketed as a New Orleans classic drink and is served at restaurants for brunch all over the city. The recipe here appeared in the Times Picayune in 2004 and again in Cooking Up a Storm in 2008. The editors of the book report that in Cuba it is often made with dark rum and known as “ponche de leche.” (2) This particular recipe also offers proportions of both rum and bourbon for the popular drink. While this favorite holiday treat is often recommended as a “pick-me-up”, many people say it has a calming influence. This difference of opinions leads to the conclusion that milk punch is wildly popular whenever it’s served.
As far back as 1718 when the ship Neptune delivered red wine, white wine and brandy to the early residents of the new French colony for their first Christmas feast, “spirits” have been an important part of the holiday season in New Orleans. (3)
La Nouvelle Orleans was at that time very bleak. Soldiers, carpenters, trench-diggers and surveyors had been working for many months in order to clear the area and build the four wooden buildings standing in the space now known as Jackson Square. (4) Given a description of the area, “a dark dank wilderness where alligators bellowed and frogs roared deafening chorus and mosquitoes sang and stung”,(5) the men must have been as thrilled to see the array of wines and liquor as they were the bounteous feast provided for them on Christmas Eve.
This first New Orleans Christmas established midnight mass and a traditional midnight supper or breakfast (Reveillon) as a customary celebration in the city. As time passed and the population grew, Christmas customs became more elaborate. By 1837, The Times Picayune reported, “Christmas was ushered in as usual, with the tolling of bells, the firing of guns, the sputter of (fire) crackers, the throng of the market…Never did we experience a more invigorating morning than that of 1837, giving zest to the eggnog which prevailed at different firesides.” (6)
Eggnog, a national favorite, was and is arguably the primary festive drink of both Christmas and New Year’s day family celebrations in the city. Today, many Louisianians make this powerful and delicious holiday beverage at home (in spite of the number of choices they have in any grocery). As all locals know, one of the most beloved restaurants in the city is Galatoire’s. After Hurricane Katrina, Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker, two well-known Times Picayune food writers, edited the cookbook Cooking up a Storm in response to pleas from despondent readers who had lost their favorite recipes in the hurricane’s flood waters. The two editors included Galatoire’s eggnog recipe in this popular book. (see recipe here)
Creoles were generally very devout Catholics; therefore Christmas was a solemn occasion for them. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve was something that few people would have missed. Although gentlemen didn’t always tend to be regular attendants at mass, according to one author, “a man might miss almost any service in the year, but he would feel deep regret if he did not join the women for the solemnities of the holy night.” (7) After mass, the family went home for the traditional late supper (or breakfast), called Reveillon. This would have included many traditional dishes and various wines. Christmas day was quiet, but on New Year’s Day, the presents, revelry and feasting began.
A huge bowl of eggnog and an elaborate cake in the parlor were essential for the Creole family’s New Year’s Day celebration. In addition to gift giving, this was the day that men were expected to make an obligatory social call on every family member and close friend. Failure to do so would not have been an option if the visitor expected to maintain his good status within the tight Creole community. At 11:00 in the morning the calls began and didn’t end until late in the day. To be polite a gentleman would have taken a drink and something to eat at every house he visited. By the time the men had finished their list of callers, it was said that “the eggnog had about finished them.” (8) Needless to say most women would not have been visiting on this day. Their duty was to receive their guests and to make sure that food and drink were plentiful. The worst thing to happen at any New Orleans party then and now is to run out of food.
Cherry Bounce is another well-known homemade holiday drink that’s been popular in Louisiana for many years even though it’s necessary to use wild cherries in this part of the country. However, one of the oldest recipes for cherry bounce came from Martha Washington’s memorandum book. Apparently it was one of President Washington’s favorites. When Washington set out in 1784 hoping to find a “Westward commercial waterway”, according to his journal, he was well prepared with his “equipage trunk and canteens filled with Madeira, port wine and cherry bounce”. (9) Abigail Adams noted in a letter that at Mrs. Washington’s open house on New Year’s Day in 1790 the first lady served cake and cherry bounce. (Original Martha Washington Cherry bounce recipe available here) (10) Although Mrs. Washington’s recipe called for French brandy, cherry bounce is often made with bourbon or vodka. In a novel by Edith Wharton, a temperance minister had his own version of the anecdote about young Washington and the cherry tree. “The infant patriot was depicted as having cut down the tree to check the spread of cherry bounce.” (11)
At the Hermann-Grima Historic House in New Orleans’s French Quarter, it has been documented that the family of Judge Felix Grima made their own cherry bounce, which seems to have been the custom at the time. (The popular historic house maintains a restored open hearth kitchen shown on their tours.) Several New Orleanians report that their grandparents (of both French and English heritage) often made cherry bounce and today people still make the potent beverage and offer it not only for seasonal holidays, but also for special occasions.
While cherry bounce remains popular in Louisiana today, one of the most interesting connections with the drink occurred in North Carolina. Amos Owens, a famous moonshiner there, concocted his cherry bounce with corn whiskey. According to the article, “Legendary Moonshiners of North Carolina”, Owens’ version of cherry bounce was renowned across the state and as far as the Mississippi River. (12)
There are other homemade drinks in New Orleans that have been passed down for generations in local families. In his book, Creole Collage, Leonard Huber writes about a French favorite holiday drink, anisette. He reports that Creole aunts in the old French Quarter often made their special blend of anisette for holiday visitors. To make this favored drink, they boiled sugar and water to make a syrup, then added alcohol and an extract of anise seed to produce a strong liqueur. (13) Anisette of course is a drink that has a taste similar to licorice which most people either love or hate. Consequently, anisette hasn’t maintained its former holiday reputation, but many New Orleanians continue to drink and support anise based drinks year round.
For years New Orleans coffee has been such a favorite among tourists that they buy it in the city and continue to order it from all over the country. Another New Orleans festive holiday drink indicates that there’s plenty of coffee in evidence during the holidays. If you’re looking for a very easy coffee drink, consider “Creole Coffee Punch”. Tim McNally, in a recent New Orleans Magazine article, brought attention to this coffee punch recipe which consists of all New Orleans made ingredients. (14) “Creole Coffee Punch” supports three local companies with the use of these ingredients: Brandy Milk Punch Ice Cream from the New Orleans Ice Cream Company, Old New Orleans Cajun Spice Rum, and P.J.’s Coffee Concentrate. (15) (See recipe here) All these products should be available online. Of course there are many other spirited coffee punch recipes using less specific or localized ingredients in cookbooks and on the internet.
Whether you prefer milk punch, cherry bounce, eggnog or coffee punch, the Christmas season is a wonderful place to visit New Orleans, a city which cherishes its past and joyfully celebrates its present with food and drink.
Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker, ed(s)., Cooking Up a Storm (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2008), 23.
Historic New Orleans Collection, “What’s Cooking in New Orleans?” exhibit catalog online, 2007 www.hnoc.org/Exhibits/pdf/What’sCookingCatalog.pdf
Meigs Oliver Frost, “New Orleans’ First Christmas, 216 Years Ago”, Times Picayune, Dec. 23, 1934. (Historic New Orleans Collection microfilm)
- Pie Dufour, “New Orleans Chistmases of Long Ago Traced”, Times Picayune, Dec. 24, 1967 (Historic New Orleans microfilm; section 2, p. 8.)
- Harnett Kane, The Southern Christmas Book. (New York. David McKay Company, Inc., 1958), 224
- Eliza Ripley, Social Life in Old New Orleans, (New York & London, D. Appleton and Co., 1912), Google E-Books, 56. (http://books.google.com)
- Woodville Plantation.Blogspot.com/cherry bounce
- Leonard Victor Huber and Roger Baudier, Creole Collage:Reflections on the Colorful Customs of Latter day New Orleans Creoles (Center for Louisiana Studies: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1980), 31.
- Tim McNally, “You Can’t Make This Stuff up,” New Orleans Magazine, September 2012; also www.MyNewOrleans.com