Eggnog has been part of our history since the colonies even had a history. Originally a “posset” in Europe (particularly England) was a hot drink made of milk curdled with wine or ale. It was beaten to smooth out its texture; spices and sugar were added, and by the 16th century, cream replaced milk. Once the recipe jumped across the Atlantic, colonists and later Americans began adding eggs to the mixture, which started to be served cold.
Several references exist concerning serving “an eggnog” to patients in hospitals during the Civil War. For example, author, chef, and television star Walter Staib describes eggnog as “more akin to a protein shake,” providing a nutritional boost to patients. And eggnog’s health benefits were believed to go beyond just nourishment. As late as 1892, a medical treatise suggested eggnog to help treat “la grippe,” or influenza. But–the eggnog we wish to reference here is of the type that created a “riot” at West Point in 1826. It contains alcohol.
On December 31, 1859, an editorial in The Chicago Press and Tribune lamented how even the politicians in the U.S. House of Representatives were not immune to the charms of holiday eggnog:
Eggnog has ruled the country today. It is a famous drink in public and private houses in Washington on Christmas, and some of the members, in spite of it, reached the house today at noon, and some, in consequence of it, did not get there at all.
Here are a variety of eggnog recipes, beginning with one from a well-known Virginia family.
Mrs. General Lee’s Eggnog (for a party)
10 eggs separated
2 c. sugar
2 1/2 c. brandy
1/2 c. and 1 tsp. dark rum
8 c. milk or cream
Beat the yolks of ten eggs very light (in color, meaning they are very well blended), add sugar — stir in slowly two tumblers of French brandy – 1/2 tumbler of rum – add 2 quarts new milk — & last the whites beaten light (very fluffy).
After this is mixed, it must “ripen” in a cold-but-not-freezing place. (An unheated room or porch was the standard location for Mrs. Lee)
From The Robert E. Lee Famly Cooking and Housekeeping Book, by Anne Carter Zimmer. Recipe from the collection of Mary (Mrs. Robert E.) Lee.
General Harrison’s Egg Nog (single serving)
1 1/2 teaspoonful of sugar
2 or 3 lumps of ice
Fill the tumbler with cider, and shake well.This is a splendid drink and is very popular on the Mississippi River. It was the General’s favorite beverage, although there seemed to be several generals Harrison–on both sides.
Baltimore Egg Nogg (for a party of fifteen)
Take the yellow of sixteen eggs and twelve tablespoons of pulverized loaf sugar, and beat them to the consistency of cream; to this, add 2/3rds of a nutmeg, grated, and beat well together; Then mix in half a pint of good brandy or Jamaica rum, and two wine glasses of Madeira wine. Have ready the whites of the eggs, beaten to a stiff froth, and beat them into the above-described mixture. When this is done, stir in six pints of good, rich, cold milk. Egg Nogg made in this manner is digestible and will not cause headaches. On the contrary, it makes an excellent drink for debilitated persons, and a nourishing diet for consumptives.
One of the holiday traditions in our home is to note the first eggnog sighting. This year it was two days before Hallowe’en at our local market. My husband takes a picture and sends it to everyone. Of course, the one with the earliest sighting must bring the eggnog to the family Christmas celebration, which is a coveted honor. The recipes for this series are mostly from a book that should be on the shelf of every Civil War historian: Jerry Thomas’s 1862 Bartenders Guide. Bouvez! (French for “Drink up!”)