Eight Questions You Have Every Right To Ask About Eggnog

Eight Questions You Have Every Right To Ask About Eggnog

There are two nogs in this picture, see if you can find them.

[Every day this week, FiTR will be offering posts about eggnog, the quintessence of Christmas as a food holiday. There will be recipes and reminiscences, and the occasional cautionary tale. This is the first installment.]

1. What's a "nog" anyway?

"Nog" is one of those Germanic words lost in the fog, attributed to Anglo-Saxon by Webster's, but sounding a little more Scandinavian, say, Old Norse. In fact, it's easy to imagine Leif Erickson and his merry band drinking a warm batch of eggnog made with sheep's milk before hopping on the boat to discover America.

"Nog," in its most archaic usage, refers to a block of wood put in a brick wall, so that nails may be driven into it. Never heard anyone use it that way, though.

More commonly, a nog is a beverage containing milk, cream, sugar, eggs, or some combination thereof. In that regard, it somewhat resembles a Brooklyn egg cream - though the egg cream contains neither eggs nor cream, of course.

In England, a nog was once a very foamy dark ale with cream-colored bubbles. Indeed our own more-modern usage of "nog" may refer to the color of the beer-nog's foam and its similarity to the yellowish hue of the best eggnogs and other egg-bearing milk-nogs. But this is something of a stretch, as far as FiTR is concerned. (Either way, it would be good if some local beer outfit like Sixpoint, Brooklyn Brewery, or Kelso would make an old-fashioned beer-nog so we could see for sure.)

2. Does eggnog have anything to do with your noggin?

Well, maybe. A noggin, besides being ancient slang for your head, is also a carved squat cup, often with a handle something like a ladle, circa 1600. At one time, a nog may have been any beverage poured into a noggin. Additionally, a head may have been called a noggin because the shape of the human cranium resembles that of the vessel called noggin. Confused? We are.

Use your noggin!


3. When did eggnog originate?

Wikipedia thinks, at least, that nogs may be descended from milk-based drinks called possets, which are basically Medieval medical tonics, served hot, that often contained hot milk, ale, sugar, spices, and sometimes whipped egg, according to the Food Lover's Companion. Plausible.

Others believe that eggnog was invented in America during colonial times, and that the term is a corruption of "egg and grog" ("grog" meaning rum), a beverage perhaps more awful than we can even contemplate. In this version of the story, rum is always the designated alcoholic mixer because that alcohol, part of the so-called Slave Triangle, was the cheapest and most prevalent form of alcohol in the colonies, until it was replaced in cheapness by raw American-made whisky sometime around 1800.

4. Why Is Eggnog more popular in the United States than anywhere else?

Could this be John Smith and his pals drinking eggnog?
Could this be John Smith and his pals drinking eggnog?

Well, there is the origin story, above, which is partly borne out by anecdotes about famous incidents involving eggnog in the colonial times and the early history of the Republic. In a story I did for Salon six years ago, I unearthed a tale about Captain John Smith wassailing eggnog way back in 1607 Jamestown, Virginia.

According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, the first reference to eggnog in print on these shores occurred in an account of a breakfast served at the City Tavern in Philadelphia in 1796, and the earliest cookbook to offer a recipe was published in 1836.

Once again according to Wikipedia, something hilariously referred to as the Eggnog Riot happened at West Point in 1826 just before Christmas, when whiskey was smuggled into the military academy to make eggnog, and the drunken cadets went berserk. Court marshalls were handed out to 20 students and one enlisted man afterwards.


Eight Questions You Have Every Right To Ask About Eggnog

Go ahead! Have another yuletide cup of eggnog.

5. What flavorings are commonly used in eggnog?

Without delving into contradictory recipes (these will be offered in due course during Eggnog Week on FiTR), it should be pointed out that it's a rare eggnog that doesn't feature nutmeg, often both put in the recipe, and sprinkled on top. It's a sweet and aromatic spice that never fails to generate a holiday spirit, especially in drinks and baked goods. The spice originated in the Southeast Asian Spice Islands and was brought by Columbus back to Spain, from which it spread throughout Europe and from there to America.

Egg yolks enrich the flavor of eggnog, and so do whole milk or even cream. The color of eggnog comes principally from the egg yolks, and if dark rum or whisky is added, that further deepens and intensifies the color. Many commercial dairy egg nogs assume that a rum flavoring should always be part of the mix; to that end, many use artificial rum flavoring.

6. Isn't eggnog dangerous to your health?

When the first egg-yolk salmonella scare arose in 1992 -- it has recurred frequently since then -- laws were passed in some states prohibiting the serving of uncooked eggs in any form. And from thenceforth many recipes for the beverage published in magazines and newspapers included a pasteurization step to kill the bacillus after the beverage was concocted but before it was served. Of course, with access to free-range eggs, the brave can ignore that step, because it does really lead to an impoverishment of the flavor, and a lessening of the rich texture imparted by the whipped raw egg yellow and white.

7. Is eggnog better hot or cold?

Definitely cold, or approaching room temperature, which makes it taste creamier.

8. Then what the hell is a Tom and Jerry, if not eggnog with rum?

Named after the leads in a 19th century English play called Life in London, or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq. and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom and not the Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, Tom and Jerry is a drink associated with New York's most prominent bartender and ur-mixologist professor Jerry Thomas, who wrote the country's first bartending guide, published in 1862. His recipe was basically just heated eggnog, with the only ingredients being beaten egg, rum, and warmed milk. The absence of sugar or other flavorings in his recipe is rather arresting, and, according to Epicurious, he was so adamant about it being a cold-weather-only beverage, that he refused to serve it before the first snowfall in Gotham. Newer recipes are more elaborate and often involve multiple forms of alcohol, with the beverage served as a punch.

Follow me on Twitter if you dare -- @robertsietsema

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