Much like fruitcake, the necessity of buying a gift for your boss, or wearing that Santa Claus sweater that Grandma knit you, some would consider eggnog to be just another of the necessary evils of Christmas. Something to be grudgingly and distastefully tolerated. While for others, it ranks among the likes of extravagant presents, holiday bonuses, mistletoe and Rudolph boxer shorts as a requirement to make the holidays complete. But whether you love it or hate it, eggnog has definitely become as integral a part of the holiday season as Santa himself. After all, Americans consume an average of 130 million pounds of eggnog every year. So where exactly did this Christmas staple come from, and how did it evolve into the beverage of choice at every holiday party and family gathering this time of year?
Eggnog is a fairly simple, usually alcoholic substance, made from milk or cream, sugar, beaten eggs, and whatever is your pollutant of choice (brandy, rum, and whisky are the most popular). Sometimes a sprinkling of cinnamon or nutmeg is added for good measure. In today's salmonella-phobic world, the FDA allows the commercial stuff to contain a mere 1% eggs and still be called eggnog. If you fear food poisoning anyway, and prefer your nausea to be simply hangover-induced, make sure your eggs are pasteurized.
Which came first, the chicken or the eggnog?
Though the exact origins of eggnog are as murky as that layer of film at the bottom of the carton, most sources agree on certain facts. Eggnog is the much younger brother of the Medieval British drink posset, which is a mixture of milk and either wine or ale, served warm. As posset evolved, eggs were sometimes thrown in the mix, and thus eggnog was born. Another possible ancestor of the nog might be the egg flip. Made with only eggs and liquor, this concoction was mixed by pouring it from one vessel to another-- a process known as "flipping".
Use Your Noggin
Since they get credit for most of our language anyway, we probably have the Brits to thank for the somewhat odd name "eggnog" as well. "Nog" is likely an abbreviation of the word noggin, an old English word for either a small, carved wooden mug used to serve adult beverages, or the term used to describe the strong ale served inside such a mug.
The average eggnog has about 343 calories per cup, at least 20 grams of fat, a full day's dose of sugar and half your daily recommended amount of cholesterol.
The Drink That Stole Christmas
These days eggnog is in ready supply, at least around the holidays. The coveted winter drink starts appearing on supermarket shelves close to Halloween, and sticks around for roughly the next two months (not counting those extra pounds eggnog gives us, which unfortunately linger much longer). The week before Christmas accounts for approximately 20 percent of the annual nog sales. (Mark your calendars: December 24th is National Eggnog Day!). Thanksgiving week is a close second in eggnog commerce, with about ten percent of the yearly sales. Apparently folks like to cuddle up by the fire with a cup of the stuff, since eggnog sells better in cooler climates.
Nog Yourself Out
In the two months leading up to New Year's, eggnog in all its many forms is everywhere. There are lower-fat and reduced-sugar varieties, though it's far from a diet food. Nog even took up real estate in the non-dairy and vegan markets. Not to mention the wide array of eggnog-flavored products, edible and otherwise. (Eggnog body spray, anyone?) By January, however, we're all hungover, chubby (the average eggnog has about 343 calories per cup, at least 20 grams of fat, a full day's dose of sugar and half your daily recommended amount of cholesterol), and in general nogged out.
But eggnog wasn't always so easily accessible. In England of the 1800's, eggnog was a privileged cocktail reserved for the rich and snooty. Back then, milk and eggs were hard to come by, and beyond the means of the average Joe. The traditional liquors (brandy, Madeira, sherry) that usually spiked the punch were equally expensive. Therefore, eggnog in those days was a luxury, and its drinkers were loaded. Even before imbibing. Since it is a tradition to use eggnog to toast to prosperity and good health, the early English aristocracy would sit around counting their money and assessing their worldly goods, while knocking back a few in honor of their good fortune.
But as eggnog travelled to American shores, it also reached the masses. With the self-sufficiency of the settlers, many of whom had their own farms, they were able to provide themselves with the necessary ingredients to make a good nog. As for the hooch: rum, economically imported from the Caribbean, soon replaced the pricey and heavily taxed European liquors previously used. In fact, some say that this is how the name "eggnog" really came about. Rum, or its cocktail derivatives, was called "grog" by the colonists. And the so-called "egg-and-grog" gradually morphed into "eggnog". When the Brits restricted the importation of rum during the war, the colonists found another way around this as well. Not to be outsmarted or nog-deprived, they began to use bourbon, which they produced themselves locally, in their juice. Nothing would stand between man and his nog!
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Eggnog
Indeed, eggnog was serious business for these early Americans. It is a known fact that even George Washington was a big fan of the eggy brew, and that he could throw together a drink with more bite than the old president's alleged wooden teeth. Tea may have been expendable back then, but I assure you, those Revolutionaries were certainly not dumping eggnog into Boston Harbor. In fact, some people were so desperate to have their eggnog, it brought them to arms.
Nog-Down Drag-Out Fight
A well-known incident referred to as the "Egg Nog Riots" occurred at Christmastime in 1826. At West Point Academy, a commanding officer dared to forbid alcohol consumption by the cadets, even during the holidays. Since eggnog was a tradition they simply weren't willing to forgo, several cadets smuggled gallons of whisky into the barracks. They whipped up their Christmas concoction (doubtless using Washington's famous recipe), over-indulged, and misbehaved accordingly. There was violence, vandalism, weapons fired, and a whole lot of drunken debauchery. But, by George, there was eggnog after all! So the next time you find yourself fighting off Michael from accounting for the last ladle-full of eggnog at the office Christmas party, you know that you are in good company and fighting for a righteous cause. Your forefathers would be so proud.