Mixing the Holiday Cocktail That Drinks Like a Meal
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos
The saccharine sentiments of "The Christmas Song"even when delivered by Nat King Cole's dulcet pipesdon't move me. You see, I read in Mel Torme's autobiography how Mel and a buddy banged out the tune in 45 minutes one sweltering July afternoon. Every time I hear this ditty (which, if you listen to AM radio like I do, is about every 20 minutes this time of year) I envision two sweaty white boys conjuring up Jack Frost in their shirtsleeves while California sunshine floods the room. Eskimos indeed.
"The Christmas Song" is flawed for me in other ways, and not just in its portentous title. Like most Yuletide tunes, it hits the holiday high notes while ignoring some stone truths: The holly, jolly season, for better or worse, is often also about caloric overindulgence and overt intoxication. And Torme's tune fails to mention a holiday staple that enables season's greeters to neatly combine both these vices.
To wit, "The Christmas Song" doesn't mention eggnog, that viscous amalgam of raw eggs, milk, sugar, and whiskey (or rum, or brandy, or grain alcohol). Eggnog: the cocktail that drinks like a meal. The primrose pabulum that's high in calories, high in cholesterol, high in fat, and can get you high as a kite and lit up like a Christmas tree.
Of course not all eggnog falls under Jeopardy!'s Potent Potable category. Indeed, I grew up with virginal eggnog. While my dad was often called on to whip up a pitcher of vodka-laced Happy Hookers at party time (don't ask; it was the '70s), the Jensen eggnog was as chaste as a nun's weekend in Vegas. We relied on the ready-made nog from the supermarket dairy case, and my parents never tired of telling us how expensive it was. We were sternly advised to drink it in moderation, to savor each cloying mouthful. And every year it was the same: No sooner had this sage advice come down from on high then my older brother Jamisen would tip back a 12-ounce tumbler of the stuff in one lip-smacking chug-a-lug. The spectacle always amazed me. Not because of the blatant disregard of parental wishes; no, I was amazed anyone could consume the sugar-laced, heavy-as-house-paint stuff in such quantity. (But then, this is the same brother who ate his Cap'n Crunch cereal with half and half and extra sugar. It's a wonder his pancreas still functions.)
Grocery-store eggnog is a modern, mass-market rendition of what is actually an age-old beverage. The history of eggnog is rather murky, but it seems to go back to Anglo-Saxon England and the tradition of the wassail bowl. Today we think of wassail as spiced wine, but back when the ancient Anglos were keen to celebrate the season (and get a load on), they filled a bowl with wine or ale, sugar, crab apples (!), cream, and, yes, eggs. They said "was haile" (Old English for "be healthy") and had at it. Revelers also went wassailing door to door, a practice that at its most benign was sort of like caroling. But it could also get a little rowdytantamount to bunch of pie-eyed frat boys combing the streets demanding drink.
There are two theories as to how we arrived at the name "eggnog." Some say it derived from nog, an Old English word for ale. Other reports trace it to noggin, a small mug used for its consumption. Of course, it has other names outside of the English speaking world. There's a French rendition called lait de poule a la biére, which sounds exotic and toothsome (like most things in French do), until you realize it translates as "milk of chicken with beer." Mexicans call eggnog rompope (and it's sometimes made with grain alcohol). Peruvians toast the Yule with eggy cups of biblia con pisco (made with native brandy), and Puerto Rican eggnog is called coquito (made with rum, natch).
Eggnog no doubt landed on American shores with the earliest settlers. Indeed, this country witnessed perhaps the beverage's blackest hour: the Eggnog Riot. It happened at the West Point Military Academy in 1826. Seems that year the school was hell-bent to have a hooch-free holiday. Eggnog was verboten. Many of the budding army officers would have none of this. They smuggled eggnog fixings into the dorm and, with blankets sealing the windows, began a boozy salute to the birth of the savior. The bash was busted in the wee hours and a violent melee ensued. There was even an attempted murder. Nineteen eggnog outlaws were court-martialed, and 11 were ultimately booted back to civilian life.
Closer to home, Maryland and Baltimore also figure in eggnog lure. Many cookbooks and bar guides list a recipe for Baltimore Eggnog (it's made with rum and brandy). The 1932 cookbook Eat, Drink, and Be Merry in Maryland (recently reissued) lists no less than five eggnog recipes. One of them, Franklin Farms Eggnog, is named after a house that once stood on West Franklin Street. They must have had some epic bashes at this joint: The recipe calls for 10 dozen eggs, 13 quarts of cream, nine quarts of milk, and nearly nine quarts of brandy and rum.
Sadly, eggnog's salad days may be behind it. Modern day fans of the eggy, boozy beverage are faced with an irksome new foe: Salmonella enteritidis. This bothersome bacterianamed after American pathologist Daniel Elmer Salmonhas long been associated with chicken meat, but about 15 years ago it was discovered inside chicken eggs. The folks in lab coats are still not entirely sure how the blighters get inside the shell, but some do. And when they get into your system they can give you salmonellosis, a charming diversion characterized by abdominal cramps, fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. It can be even more problematic for the elderly, the young, and the already ill. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has branded raw-egg eggnog "potentially hazardous." Even the American Egg Board doesn't champion the hoary old eggnog recipes anymore.
"Well, the alcohol will surely kill the salmonella," an old-school eggnog fan told me, glibly, when the dangers of the drink were brought up. It's an interesting theory, but one that doesn't pass scientific muster. "You can't be assured that the amount of alcohol used will inactivate the organism," a spokesperson for the FDA's Office of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition told me. "It ain't a good a idea to try." Perhaps if you left out the cream and cracked an egg straight into a mug of Jack Daniels you'd be OK (but the resulting drink would probably make you nauseous anyway). To avoid the issue, you can use a prepackaged pasteurized "egg product"which I'm pretty sure is what was used at my college dining hall to make scrambled eggs. No thanks.
Another way around the disease is to heat your egg, cream, and sugar mixture to a bacteria-killing 160 degrees. You need a candy thermometer to make sure you reach the magic number (and as soon as you do, you have to quickly cool the egg mix back down, lest the eggs firm up, leaving you with a whiskey omelet.) Science may yet find a way around this conundrum. One egg supplier has developed a method of pasteurizing eggs in the shell, though that's still in the test-marketing stage.
But things aren't as black as the nervous Nellies in the government let on. It's not like every carton of eggs is a diarrhea time bomb. Only about 1 in 20,000 eggs is thought to be infected with salmonella. Pretty long odds if you ask me. So when it came to try my hand at making eggnog I threw caution to the wind anddon't try this at homeused raw eggs. (I felt so devious I was tempted seal the windows with blankets.) I followed a simple recipe calling for eggs, cream, powdered sugar, and bourbon. I separated the eggs and added the bourbon, sugar, and cream to the yolks. I beat the whites until they were stiff, then mixed them in with the liquor-soaked yolks. Eggnog purists say you must grate your own nutmeg to sprinkle on top, but please, I'm a bachelor. I was lucky to have an egg beater. McCormick's nutmeg in a tin was good enough for me.
The resulting bowl of sickly yellow goop was delicious. I invited some friends over and we were quickly overcome with the, er, spirit of the season. It wasn't even frickin' Thanksgiving yet and we were warbling carols. Not "The Christmas Song," of course. Worse "Jingle Bell Rock."
And that's when I knew I should stick to the supermarket stuff.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Period Pieces (8/1/2007)
Why A Maryland Man Turned His Rec Room Into The World's First Museum Of Menstruation
Wild Bunch (8/9/2006)
Prickly Racial Politics And Murderous Mafia Plots Amid Baltimore's Banana Wars
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (4/19/2006)
Clipper City's 1st Beer, Cheese, and Chili Festival in Feedbag 2/26/2009
Belgian Beer Festival at Max's Taphouse in Feedbag 2/13/2009
Best Cocktail : The Old Fashioned At Henninger's Tavern 9/17/2008
Best Cocktail Menu : Pepino's 9/17/2008
Best Local Bottled Beer : Clipper City Oxford Organics 9/17/2008
Best Blueberry Beer : The Dog Pub 9/17/2008
Best Local Draft Beer : Oliver's Anniversary Best Bitter 9/17/2008
Best Beer Selection : Racers Café 9/17/2008
Best Opportunity For Free Whiskey : Alexander's 9/17/2008
Best Cheap Drinks : Penny a Pint Night At Patrick's 9/17/2008
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