Enigmatic Eggnog

As I was celebrating Christmas Eve-Eve with a glass of eggnog I wondered how long people have been drinking this stuff to celebrate the holidays.

I started my research with a book on “Colonial Christmas Cooking,” partly because it’s relevant to the season and mostly because it’s one the rabbit pulled off the shelf so I had to pick it up anyway before she ate it. Eggnog certainly seems like it could have been consumed in the 18th Century, when milky drinks like syllabub and posset enjoyed great popularity. Syllabub is a mixture of wine, sugar, spices and milk that was sometimes squirted directly from the cow to give a bubbly effect. In fact, my Christmas cookbook says the strange name of the drink derives from the town in France from which the wine was imported (Sillery) and “bub” which is an Elizabethan word for bubbly drink. Posset is a similar drink served warm.

in the colonial Gunshop at Jerusalem Mill

"What is this? Posset? Syllabub? Eggnog?"

My colonial Christmas book discusses syllabub, posset and eggnog, but the footnote for the recipe for eggnog refers to a book written in 1958. So we’ve got a lapse of a couple centuries and I need to dig a little more if I want to find early references to eggnog.

I turned to a much more scholarly cookbook, Karen Hess’s annotated version of Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, which gives many recipes for syllabub, posset, and caudle, but none for eggnog. This book is a collection of recipes handed down through Martha’s family and many of them are Elizabethan or even medieval in origin – these would have been the old standby “comfort foods” of the 18th Century, not the modern trendy recipes. Hess refers to one of the posset recipes as being a “warm eggnog,” but I think she does that only to help modern readers understand the taste, not because the name was necessarily in use. But it seems maybe the drink we recognize today as eggnog was around before the name was coined.

Hannah Glasse, who was the most popular cookbook author of the 18th Century both in England and the U.S., gives recipes for syllabub, “everlasting syllabub” and “solid” syllabub in her book. But there’s no mention of eggnog that I can see. (Her first version of Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was published in 1747; I’m using an American edition published in 1805.)

None of my other historic cookbooks have an index so I become lazy and start looking online. It’s getting late now and my quest for the origin of the drink is starting to lose out to my desire to go downstairs and pour another one.

I’m growing convinced that the drink dates to the colonial era, probably having derived from posset. It would have to be a drink for the rich because eggs were in demand as leavening agents in baking and were expensive. The “egg” part of the name is obvious. Wikipedia and other sources suggest that the “nog” could come from “noggin,” a carved wooden mug, or from “grog” a term for a drink made with rum. But this all conjecture. I’m guessing some well-to-do English and Americans were drinking eggnog by the late 1600s, even if they called it by another name. The English used fortified wine like sherry in the their posset; with eggnog, the preference was for brandy. Americans often used rum because it was cheaper. And then when rum could not be imported, they turned to native bourbon.

Regardless of how long the drink may have been popular in the past, eggnog’s popularity may not continue too long into the future due to concerns about the high fat and calorie content. To reduce the fat and create a drink more in keeping with today’s healthier lifestyle, I recommend diluting the egg/milk mixture with a dark Jamaican rum made from whole grain sugar cane. To increase the fiber content, add a generous sprinkle of fresh grated high fiber nutmeg, then stir with a magnetically charged spoon to encourage a beneficial ion balance and be sure that if you set down your glass, you arrange it in keeping with practices of feng shui for a harmonious table setting.

Or just hang onto your glass until it’s time for a refill.

Merry Christmas Eve!

 

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