In the summer of 2012, with 65 of our nearest and dearest assembled in Black Rock, Tobago, my fiancé Joseph and I got very dressed up and made some promises.
A lot went wrong on our wedding day: My hairdresser accidentally branded me on my forehead with the hot curling iron; the violinist arrived two hours late, and I walked down the aisle to wedding music via boom box; the chairs we ordered were held hostage at a loading dock in another Caribbean island (office chairs draped in turquoise polyester it was), and we somehow forgot to take our first dance. It was every bride’s nightmare.
Fortunately, I was born with a disturbingly high threshold for rolling with the punches, a genetic trait that I attribute to my mother’s unflappable cool and grace under pressure. Needless to say, with all of the tumult, two things went right: 1) the promises we made and 2) the rum punch we drank.
* * *
Ours was an improbable romance. He was a Physics PhD from Jamaica, and I was a journalism-turned–line cook from Trinidad. During our college courtship in Raleigh, North Carolina, a proper date consisted of midnight BOGO sushi. On our wedding day, when my make-up artist applied pounds of concealer over my fresh burn I thought: Par for the course. We’ve never been that "perfect match" couple with the easy, smooth relationship.
Days before the wedding, the catering manager inquired how many guests were coming from overseas to celebrate.
“28!" I cheered. "The rest are locals.”
She looked at her notes, then peered at me with caution in her eyes. “Two gallons of rum punch will not suffice,” she said, strongly and insistently.
I thought: Surely, with a full bar, two gallons would be plenty. Not wanting to seem uncooperative, I countered her stance with a query, “How do you make the rum punch here?”
She smiled, her countenance softened, and said, “The same way we all make it. The way we were all taught in our home kitchens.” Instantly, I knew exactly what she meant and our shared history of being Trinidadians had done the work of brokering the impasse. I told her to make as much as she deemed necessary—food and beverage budget be damned! I trusted her completely.
After pictures were snapped, toasts applauded, champagne-filled glasses clinked, and tears dried—it was time to party. Parsing through a small gaggle of my girlfriends, my big brother, Reynold, brought over a rocks glass filled with a liquid that resembled the colors of a decadent Caribbean sunset. The drink contained no clichéd garnishes or any flamboyant swizzle sticks; it was simple yet unabashedly nuanced. I took a slow, measured sip. In it I tasted the smoke of barrel-aged rum, the grassy-sweet vegetal imprint of Demerara sugar made with home-grown sugarcane, the brazen pucker of fresh lime, grapefruit and passion fruit, and the mysterious hint of botanicals from Trinidad’s own Angostura bitters. A scant dusting of grated nutmeg floated atop the drink, and with each sip I imbibed, I marveled at how a drink so simple could be a bastion of the West Indies' best flavors.
A couple hours later, our guests took 10 gallons of that rum punch and knocked it back like cold water on a warm Caribbean day.
When I zoom out, and think back to our Trinidad and Tobago nuptials, this drink wasn’t just the signature drink of our wedding, it became part of the wedding. It was a gift to our guests, as well as to us. The rum punch was an expression of the culinary legacy of the Caribbean—a heritage riddled with the burns of sugar and the ills of slavery—and at the same time, it was powerful reference of the West Indies' intoxicating ease.
Joseph and I made one last promise that day, that we wouldn’t forget all of the lessons embedded in the most unassuming and delicious part of our Caribbean.
And that’s why on a weekly basis, at home in Raleigh, we continue to make some variant of rum punch, employing the same rhythmic recipe that’s known throughout the islands. It’s the same recipe that our wedding caterer uttered without skipping a beat:
- 1 part sour
- 2 parts sweet
- 3 parts strong
- 4 parts weak
During the balmy North Carolina months, we take our rum punch and introduce it to the quintessential Southern staple, sweet tea. We grate our nutmeg and steep our tea, for we are both island natives and Americans. We take two drinks that are worlds apart, fuse them, and in doing so give ourselves a unique sense of allocation.
For us, Sweet Tea Rum Punch is a reminder to embrace our lives in this corner of the American South as well as to remedy the pangs of nostalgia. Finally, we have in our relationship something that’s easy and smooth.
Sweet Tea Rum Punch
Makes: 2 quarts
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 cups simple syrup
3 cups good dark rum
4 cups freshly brewed black tea
2 tablespoons Angostura bitters
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1/2 pineapple, trimmed, sliced lengthwise into 6 stalks
1 pinch grated nutmeg