Rum's Punch

Article excerpt

Byline: Julia Reed

Several years ago, when Quentin Tarantino made Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch into a film called Jackie Brown, it captured almost none of the book's genius. Leonard's work is deceptively multilayered, full of mood and pitch-perfect rhythm and action that seems entirely unforced. Most important, there's never been an Elmore Leonard novel that contains a single thing it shouldn't.

The latter, especially, could not be said of the appalling mixtures that lately constitute an actual rum punch, which, when crafted as meticulously as the work of my hero, can offer the same restorative--if slightly off-kilter--faith in the generally entertaining reliability of even the darkest sides of human nature, especially in these hot summer months. Too often, people make like Tarantino and show off by trying out not-quite-successful retro references (think ceramic pineapples or paper umbrellas) or adding such heavy-handed ingredients as limeade and cranberry-juice cocktail.

Now food historian Jessica Harris has stepped in with Rum Drinks, a book that reminds us that rum punch is as old as rum itself, a strong quaff perfect "for a world that required a little muting around the edges," specifically the brutal culture of the sugar-cane-growing islands of the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the 1600s, the per capita intake of Barbados was 10 gallons, much of it (by the ruling classes, at least) in the form of planter's punch, in which individual planters would offset rum's original oiliness by mixing it with cane syrup, citrus juice, and a touch of island spice. …