I love eggnog. It is one of my favorite treats of the Christmas season. And I was wondering the other day if our Regency ancestors were also able to enjoy it. I was delighted to learn that they were, though not in quite the same way as most of us do today. In addition, I discovered that one of the eggnog drinks which is most popular at this season was created by the journalist and man about town who has provided us with much of the information we have today about sporting and city life in England during our favorite decade.
Eggnog, through the Regency, and a little bit after . . .
Most food scholars agree that eggnog has its roots in medieval Britain, in a drink known then as a posset, which is also believed to be the ancestor of that classic sweet and frothy dessert, the syllabub. A posset was a hot beverage made with milk, usually curdled with ale or wine to thicken it, then spiced and sweetened. It is believed that sometime later, monks, and then others living in rural areas, added whipped eggs to their version of the drink. Some were also said to have tossed in a few figs as well. By the seventeenth century, possets became most popular among the upper classes, since they were better able to afford the costs of eggs, milk and fortified wines like sherry or brandy, which had become the preferred alcoholic ingredients. In some areas, cream was also added to the mixture. These drinks were considered healthful and were often made up as a kind of punch which was served at social gatherings. These milk, egg and alcohol drinks eventually became popular as beverages with which to toast the good health and prosperity of one’s family and friends, especially during holiday celebrations in the colder months. These beverages were also known by many who went to America. In the colonies, where many had farms where eggs and milk were plentiful, these egg, milk and spirit drinks were also enjoyed during the colder months, though the colonists tended to use less costly spirits to spike their eggnog.
There is, of course, the question of the origin of the name for this beverage and there are various theories. One is that the nog portion of the word came from a noggin, that is, a wooden cup in which spiritous beverages had been served for centuries. Another is that the name originated in the American colonies, where the egg and milk mixture was blended with rum, known commonly as grog. The concatenation of the words egg and grog were thus believed to have resulted in the name eggnog. That term was certainly in use in the American colonies since at least 1775, and referred to a beverage made of eggs, milk and rum. However, the Oxford English Dictionary states that the beverage got the second half of its name from a very strong ale brewed for generations in the region of East Anglia, particularly in Norfolk. Known as nog, this drink was often served warm, usually heated by placing a hot poker in the mug which held it. Though the term eggnog was in use in the American colonies from at least 1775, the OED does not show that it was used, in print, in Britain until the mid-1820s. Which does not preclude its use there in common speech for decades before that date.
By the eighteenth century, a similar drink became known as an egg and milk flip, for which name there are two theories. One is that the beverage was blended to produce a froth by quickly pouring it back and forth between two pitchers or other containers. The second theory is that the froth was produced by thrusting a red-hot poker into a mug or pitcher of the beverage after the alcohol had been added. Some versions of these drinks were made of milk and whole eggs, while others were made of milk, possibly with the addition of cream, and only the yolks of eggs. Sugar was typically used as a sweetening, while nutmeg and/or cinnamon were the most common spices blended in to flavor the beverage, though mace was also sometimes used. Sherry, brandy and madeira were the fortified wines used most often to spike these drinks in Britain through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.
Since these various milk and egg beverages were served hot, they seem to have been most popular during the colder months. That may explain why they were so often enjoyed during the Christmas season, particularly in the country, where the necessary fresh dairy ingredients were more readily available. However, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these beverages were also served in some households during the Easter holiday as well. In the American colonies, expensive fortified wines were replaced with rum and whiskey, both of which were more plentiful and less costly. Over time, bourbon became the spirit of choice in the southern colonies, while rum was especially popular in New England.
George Washington left a recipe from the eighteenth century for an eggnog drink which was certainly intended only for the stoutest hearts. This concoction was made of a quart each of milk and cream, into which was blended a pint of brandy, a half pint each of Jamaican rum and rye whiskey, as well as a quarter pint of sherry and six tablespoons of sugar. Next, a dozen eggs were separated, six more tablespoons of sugar was added to the beaten egg yolks which were whisked into the milk, cream and alcohol mixture. The egg whites were then beaten until they were stiff and folded in as well. The mixture was to be left to stand in a cool place for a few days, with the instructions to taste it frequently. There are no details provided on when, or if, this particular version of the drink was to be heated. Nor is there any information on whether or not it was spiced, though that is certainly possible. One can only hope it was served in small portions, though at least some of the alcohol may have evaporated while it was left standing.
Spiced eggnog is enjoyed both hot and cold, spiked or unspiked, in America today, typically from the Thanksgiving holiday through New Year’s Day. However, it does not appear to be as popular in Britain as it once was, nor does it now seem to be tied to any particular holiday. But from the eighteenth century through the Regency, hot, sweetened and spiced beverages made of milk, cream, eggs and fortified wine were enjoyed in many British households during the Christmas season, though such drinks were not generally called eggnog. They were just as likely to have been known as possets or flips and there were many variations of the recipes used to make them.
In 1821, just a few weeks after the Prince Regent had been crowned George IV, that well-known bon vivant and author, Pierce Egan, developed a drink which is a variation on possets and flips. Egan developed this new beverage, what many consider to be one of the first cocktails, as a means by which to promote his new sporting journal, Life in London or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis. This new drink consisted of milk and cream blended with egg yolks beaten with sugar, into which are folded egg whites beaten with sugar to stiff peaks. The earliest versions of this drink were made with brandy, and were spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon. Often, a cinnamon stick was placed in the mug and the top was then garnished with grated nutmeg. These new drinks were served hot, in mugs which were typically warmed first with hot water. Egan named this new drink the Tom and Jerry, after the two lead characters in his new publication. The Tom and Jerry is still a popular Christmastime cocktail in the United States and it is still served in much the same way as it was when Pierce Egan first introduced it. The Tom and Jerry cocktail was particularly popular here in the States in the middle of the last century. One of my fondest childhood memories is of my father making dozens of Tom and Jerrys when visitors came to our home during the Christmas season.
There was a curious incident involving eggnog which occurred in the United States, in 1826. The Eggnog Riot took place over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, at the West Point Military Academy in Orange County, New York. Earlier in the year, during the Fourth of July holiday (which was the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence), the cadets imbibed so heavily that even the next day, those required to serve guard duty were barely able to stagger to their posts. Therefore, the newly appointed superintendent of West Point took the drastic step of banning all alcoholic beverages from the campus. However, a contingent of Southern cadets, including Jefferson Davis, (who eventually became the President of the Confederate States of America), wanted to enjoy a traditional Christmas drink together. They smuggled all of the necessary ingredients for a large batch of spiked eggnog into their barracks on Christmas Eve. They planned to share a clandestine holiday toast together later that night. As often happens in such situations, the word got out and by midnight, nearly a hundred cadets showed up in the barracks where the heavily spiked eggnog had been made, and all imbibed freely.
Within a couple of hours, the celebration had gotten so out of hand that the guards had to be called. And many of the cadets met those guards with great resistance. Some chased the guards with swords, others threw things around the halls, smashing many breakables to bits. Others broke windows and even tore railings from the stairways. Two officers were assaulted and one of the math professors was hit on the head by a chunk of firewood. A few of the most inebriated cadets began firing loaded guns, though, fortunately, their aim was so poor that they caused no serious injuries. This uproar was dubbed the "Eggnog Riot," and caused serious problems for the school and the cadets who were caught up in it. Those who wanted to close the West Point academy seized upon this as an example of what was wrong with a military education. It is estimated that at least ninety cadets had partaken of the eggnog, and seventy of those were later implicated in the riot. Of those, nineteen were singled out as the worst offenders and they were court-martialed. Eleven of those nineteen were expelled, while the other eight were eventually pardoned and allowed to remain at West Point and complete their education.
The name eggnog seems to have been used more commonly in America in the early nineteenth century than it was in Britain. However, the name was not unknown in the British Isles. There would have been at least a few people living in Regency England who referred to milk and egg beverages spiked with alcohol as eggnog. And those drinks would have been particularly popular during the winter months, especially around the Christmas season. These beverages would typically have been served hot, spiced and sweetened. They would often have been used to drink to the health and prosperity of family and friends during social occasions as the New Year approached.
Dear Regency Authors, might you allow some of your characters to partake of a cup or two of eggnog during either the Christmas or the Easter season in an upcoming romance? Perhaps those characters might be a mix of British and American folks, with at least some among the British not understanding what the Americans mean by eggnog. How might such a scene play out? Since these eggnog beverages were usually loaded with sugar, there was some risk to those who enjoyed them, since that sweetness can mask the alcoholic content. Therefore, at least some might over-imbibe before they realize what they are doing. What kinds of untoward events might result from such unintended indulgence? Are there other ways in which cups of eggnog might enliven a Regency romance?