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Eggnog: The Drink, The Name, The Riot?

The thought of the holiday season evokes memories of twinkling lights, family and friends, warm spices filling the air, and a giant vat of eggnog. Okay, so not all think about eggnog around the holidays, as most people either love it or hate it. Generally, an unsolicited opinion is provided upon sight of the bowl of thick, cream-colored liquid with generous sprinkles of nutmeg. Nevertheless, eggnog was a big hit in my family. I recall a unique punch bowl and glasses used only for the eggnog on Christmas Eve. Between the eggnog, rum cake, and secondhand smell of booze in the air, no wonder we were all in bed early on Christmas Eve as children.

So what is eggnog, where did it come from, and what is that name? The recipe is simple; milk, cream, sugar, whipped eggs, and, in some recipes, brandy, rum, bourbon, or a combination of them all. Eggnog is more of a liquid custard than it is a punch. Eggnog has all the ingredients in ice cream, but the mixture cannot freeze due to the heavy-handed amount of alcohol.

Eggnog, a traditional English drink, hopped the pond in the 1700s. You may or not be aware, but America's Founding Fathers were quite the drinkers. In their opinion, water was not considered favorable; it was almost poisonous (I think I know such a person who still believes this). As such, alcohol became the primary drink for colonists. Like most recipes of this time, they came from England. However, the Americans ramped up a bit in the booze department based on their high tolerance level.

The odds are that eggnog was developed from posset, a medieval beverage made with hot milk, blended with wine or ale, and flavored with spices. In the Middle Ages, posset was medicinal, used mainly for the common cold and flu. In the 13th century, monks added eggs and figs to this concoction. In England, the drink was popular among fancy pants as the ingredients were expensive and difficult to obtain. Since there was an expense to the drink, it was often reserved for celebratory times and toasts to prosperity and good health. This food origin may account for why we, in modern times, reserve this drink for the winter. Not only was posset hot, but the addition of the liquors also kept the drink from spoiling and could be kept in the winter months for extended periods. A bit of a chemical reaction with the ingredients in eggnog, or posset, allows for this. It has to do with the egg proteins mixing with the alcohol and the sugars from the milk. Once these mixtures join forces, the drink can stick around a little longer than you think, and it gets better with age. The booze flavor is softened; I noticed I said flavor, not potency.

Adjustments were made when the drink recipe made its way across the Atlantic. Brandy and wine were heavily taxed in the colonies, and rum from the Caribbean was a cost-effective and delicious substitute. However, during the American Revolutionary War, rum became challenging to get, which had us turn to new ingredients, like domestic whiskey, bourbon, and moonshine, to spice up our eggnog.

Eggnog does have its dark side. The most notable case of problems associated with the drink was the Great Eggnog Riot at West Point Academy. Shortly before Christmas in 1826, there were concerns that the 260 cadets on campus were drinking a wee bit too much. It should be noted that future leaders Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were among the parting cadets. The strict school superintendent decided to turn West Point into a dry campus with no alcohol; their beloved eggnog would be free of liquor. The cadets decided to smuggle gallons of whisky into the barracks for a good Christmas party. It was too tricky for the cadets to keep their shenanigans quiet. By the end of the evening, 20 cadets and one enlisted soldier were court-martialed for smashing windows, fighting, destruction of buildings, and one failed attempt to shoot a commanding officer. That must have been quite the party.

George Washington even got in the action. Eggnog was known to be one of the President's favorite beverages. Washington created his version of eggnog, which was quite potent and rich. The recipe was particular, except he forgot to include how many eggs would go into the drink. The chefs made an executive decision and added a dozen eggs to the Presidential concoction. I will note that during early America, eggs were smaller than they are now, not that this helps much when you use 12 eggs.

Washington's recipe:

One quart cream, one-quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one-pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into the mixture. Let's sit in a cool place for several days. Taste frequently.

The name eggnog is curious and cannot be linked to a specific origin, just many guesses. The term nog was used in England to define a strong beer. The word may also come from noggin, a term for a small, carved wooden mug used to serve alcohol. The British and Colonists also enjoyed a drink called an egg flip. Finally, it also could stem from the Scottish term nugget or nugged ale, meaning “ale warmed with a hot poker."

Eggnog is not exclusive to England and America. Other countries have their variations.

  • Mexico: rompope - which uses Mexican cinnamon and rum or grain alcohol

  • Puerto Rico: coquito - which adds coconut milk and rum

  • Peru: Biblia con pisco - made with a Peruvian pomace brandy called pisco

  • Germany: biersuppe - made with beer. Another German variation is Eierpunsch, an eggnog made with white wine, eggs, sugar, cloves, tea, lemon juice, and cinnamon.

  • Venezuela and Trinidad : ponche crema. Similar to eggnog, but with a lemon rind

  • Iceland - eggnog is served hot as a dessert.

According to the American FDA, the alcohol in eggnog is ineffective in killing germs found in raw eggs. As such, they permit the drink to be made with as little as 1% egg yolk, which manufacturers are only happy to accommodate as it lowers the expense of the product. This stand was taken after an incident in 1982. In a nursing home in the US, eggnog was served to the residents and staff at a party. As a result, most of the residents and staff of the nursing home became ill with salmonellosis, and four people died. It was later determined that the eggs were a contributing factor. However, it was more likely caused by contaminated hands. Gag.

On that note, grab a big cup of eggnog and celebrate. Though the drink can pack around 400 calories a cup, it is only once a year, so sit back, relax, and drink. Happy holidays.

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