The Critical Ingredient


A few days ago I joined a recently formed LinkedIn group of alumni of and current students at the REECA (Russia, East Europe and Central Asia) master’s degree program at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. When I was there, 1966–1968, it was known more simply as the Russian Research Center (RRC), and I’ve written about it in a previous blog post.

After joining the group I looked over the roster of members, hoping to find some of the people who were in my cohort over half a century ago. While I didn’t find any (though I hope some will soon join), the search for long-lost friends brought to mind a great party that my two roommates and I threw as winter began drearily giving way to spring in 1968, as my time at Harvard was drawing to a close.

My roommates and I shared a three-bedroom second-story apartment in a creaky old house a mile or so north of Harvard Yard. They were both working on master’s degrees at MIT, just a few miles down the road from Harvard. Arlee, a good friend from high school, was studying urban planning, and Arnie (introduced to me by Arlee) was studying photography with Minor White. Somehow or other the three of us hatched the idea of throwing a party to which we’d each invite all our friends.

I’ve long since forgotten how many of this highly disparate group of people we crammed into our living room as well as most of the party’s other details. Except one: the punch.

In trying to figure out what to serve the horde we expected to show up, we hit on the idea of concocting a punch. It could be prepared ahead of time and easily ladled into plastic cups. As I dimly recall, Arlee contributed the recipe. I was up to my elbows in helping acquire the ingredients, the most critical of which were four half-gallon jugs of vodka. For flavor, we added orange sherbet, frozen lemonade concentrate and 7UP. And since we had no wish to form a bucket brigade from the kitchen to continually replenish the punch, we acquired what we felt would be a bottomless punchbowl — a sturdy new garbage can, which I purchased at a hardware store.

Not your grandma’s punchbowl!

I was present at the creation, as we scooped and poured the ingredients of our potion into the “punchbowl.” The party was a hit. How do I know that? Because our gargantuan punchbowl didn’t take too long to empty. This may also have been due to the scarcity of edibles — I don’t remember what, if anything, we provided to eat. It may well have been a purely punch-powered party.

In any case, once I realized that our first batch was nearly exhausted, I jumped in and, relying on what I recalled of its creation, mixed up a second batch, unsupervised by anyone who knew better. The lack of supervision proved critical. I’d forgotten that we hadn’t just thrown in the lemonade concentrate, but had, in fact, mixed it with the recommended quantity of water. As a result, Batch No. 2 packed a considerably heftier wallop than Batch No. 1. Less dilute, it was even tastier. People imbibed with abandon.

By about midnight I noticed the party was winding down. Beyond the steadily shrinking volume of punch in the “bowl,” the clearest evidence that the festivities were turning a corner was the condition of one of my Harvard/RRC friends. Normally an exceptionally serious, quiet, unobtrusive guy, he was sprawled across the kitchen floor wearing an aluminum saucepan on his head, the handle pointing straight out, like the brim of a baseball cap.

His wife and I decided it was time to get him home. We walked him awkwardly down the winding stairs, his arms draped over our shoulders, and poured him into my car. I hadn’t driven half a block before he woke up, declared he was about to be sick, crawled out, lay down on the wet sidewalk and promptly fell back asleep. We eventually got him home, where I helped his wife plop him onto the bed.

And that, dear readers, is one of the two most vivid memories I can resurrect from my years at Harvard. You can read about the other one here. Да здравстует (Da zdravstvuyet — Long live) the Russian Research Center!

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