Last summer, just as the kids got out of school, my husband left for Cambridge, England on a five-week fellowship. It was a long, exceptionally hot summer, both here and in England. Steve sent home glowing reports of punting on the Cam and long boozy evenings in the local pub, debating the structure of the universe and the meaning of life with fellow journalists and academics.
I, on the other hand, fell into bed every night, sweat-soaked and bone-tired after another day spent doling out peanut butter sandwiches, popsicles and Band-Aids to the half-dozen 9- to 11-year-old boys who camped out at our house most days, wrangling over the arsenals of various videogames and reciting (ad nauseam) their favorite yo' mama jokes. There's nothing like stirring the third pot of mac and cheese of the day, while listening to your son and his friends cackle maniacally "yo' mama's so old she farts out dust!" to make you feel that motherhood is grossly undercompensated.
Two things saved my life that summer. My friends and a pitcher of sangría.
I'm a firm believer in mother's little helper, a.k.a. a glass of wine at 5 o'clock. Arsenic hour, it used to be called - the time of day when the kids have finally become so whiny and intolerable that slipping a little rat poison into either their dinner or yours seems like the best solution all around.
I generally opt for sipping a small glass of a nice Pinot Grigio instead. Less messy and fewer complications. But that summer, it was too hot to drink wine, even well-chilled wine, and my temper soared right along with the temperature.
Friends came to the rescue one night with an invitation to dinner and, when we got there, a pitcher of sangría. Now, I hadn't tasted or even thought about sangría for years - if anything, it seemed like one of those party drinks that vanished, along with my youth, sometime back in the '80s. But as my children disappeared in the direction of a backyard tree fort, I heard the gentle tinkle of ice cubes, and my host pressed a glass of something ice-cold and blood-red into my hands.
Sangría! Juicy little chunks of fresh orange and lemon floated in my glass, and the clean tang of citrus sliced through the sultry Midwestern heat like an ocean breeze. The taste was sweet and tart and utterly refreshing, and I drank most of a pitcher before I realized it also packed a welcome punch.
I don't remember what we ate for dinner or even what we talked about, but I do remember that the kids and I walked home that night in a mellow mood. They had been permitted to do dangerous things with large tree limbs and were feeling pleased with themselves and (temporarily) with me. I had remembered that I had a life beyond them and that the world was full of better things to drink than orange soda or chocolate milk.
Since that night, I've discovered that there are as many recipes for sangría as there are sangría aficionados, and that while I love red sangría, I may like white sangría even better. Plus, unlike a martini or a gin and tonic, sangría is not a drink that requires great precision.
The basic requirements are fruit (whatever's in season), wine (use a decent but inexpensive wine and keep it on the light side, so it doesn't overwhelm the fruit), a sweetener (honey or sugar), a fortifier (brandy, triple sec, vodka, etc.), plenty of ice and, if you like, bubbles (champagne or something carbonated). Adjust the quantities to suit your gathering, keeping in mind that, as I think Mark Twain said, sometimes too much alcohol is not enough.
You could do worse than take your inspiration from the commander of the British Fleet who in 1599 made a sangría-style wine punch using 80 casks of brandy, 600 kilos of sugar, 500 bottles of wine and 25,000 limes. Drinks were served to guests by young boys in small rowboats, who were afloat on a sea of punch.
Drink enough sangría, and you too will feel pleasantly afloat. Just try to stop drinking before you become seasick.
Scott's Red Sangría
2 large juice oranges, one juiced and one sliced
1 large lemon, sliced
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup triple sec
1 bottle inexpensive Merlot
Mash the sliced orange, lemon and sugar together until the fruit releases some of its juice and the sugar dissolves. (Don't crush the fruit completely.) Stir in the fresh orange juice, triple sec and wine and refrigerate 2-8 hours. Before stirring, add 6-8 ice cubes and stir briskly. Serves 4.
Peach Riesling Sangría
1 bottle Riesling wine
1/2 cup peach schnapps
1-1/2 cups white cranberry-peach juice (Ocean Spray)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 vanilla bean
2 1/2-inch thick lemon slices
2 peaches, cut up
Mix together and refrigerate 2-8 hours. Before serving, add 3 cups of ice cubes. Serves 4, generously.