Knocking Noggin

What is eggnog?

No one really knows much about the origins of eggnog. It's difficult even for the most skilled historians to fathom the circumstances that led someone to whisk eggs, cream, sugar and ale into a mug. Nor does anyone spend much time researching the association between the spiked milk shake and the holiday season. Long about the end of November, cartons of artificial eggnog simply appear on grocery shelves.

Even as far back as 1866, a visitor to Baltimore pointed out that Christmas "is not properly observed unless you brew egg nogg for all comers."

About the origins of the holiday drink, we just know that in the 1400s or so, our European forefathers--the same ones who continue to nibble on snails and lutefisk--determined that cream mixed well with everything, including wine and beer. Settlers in the New World substituted rum for ale, which sounds a little more refined until you recall that American colonists used the Caribbean alcohol as a replacement for water, coffee, even mouthwash. Scholars who dare delve into the topic have determined that eggnog probably started as a variation of the sherry and milk mix, which Brits at the time called "dry sack posset." Or perhaps it began as a twist to the popular combination of red wine and milk known as "syllabub." The curious name, eggnog, derived either from rum--"grog" to the colonists--or from tavern mugs, naturally called "noggins."

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In previous centuries, eggnog was an astoundingly popular drink. Backwoods pioneers relied on rough bourbon to spike their version. George Washington whipped up a really disturbing concoction with whiskey, sherry, brandy and rum, in addition to eggs and cream. No wonder eggnog was considered a man's drink.

Of course, men wore powdered wigs and pantaloons back then, too. The 18th century was a confusing time.

We thought about all of that as we sampled various eggnogs at the Burning Question crew holiday bash. Downing a punch bowl of eggnog nowadays typically means you somehow wound up at a Baptist function where a few drinks only means you've reached the minimum daily allowance of dairy products. A few hundred years ago, however, a holiday party might end up with a bunch of inner-city thugs, drunk on 'nog, wigs askew, codpieces unhinged, knocking the living snot out of Redcoat bastards.

Thus, we realized, this week's Burning Question--What is eggnog?--could be answered in two ways. First, it's a historic alcoholic drink made originally with sherry or ale and later with hard liquor, combined with eggs, cream and sugar, that somehow transformed over time into supermarket fare smacking of glucose and other artificial ingredients. At the same time, however, when rendered properly, it remains a dangerous drink.

Older recipes call for dozens of uncooked eggs whisked together with startling amounts of alcohol. For the Burning Question crew party, we mixed egg yolks with rum and heavy cream and sugar, then folded in whipped egg whites--a salmonella soup: rich, inviting and potentially deadly.

Salmonella is the second most common food-borne illness in the United States, behind obesity, apparently. More than 40,000 cases reach doctors each year. And when health-care providers describe the disease, they speak of incubation periods and symptoms, classifying a maelstrom of misery in vaguely sanitized terms, such as gastroenteritis, as if the cold phrases of science could soothe the savage beast tearing through intestines, expelling fluids with painful suddenness and velocity. To drink a good old-fashioned 'nog is to risk cramping, vomiting and many days of violent diarrhea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that up to 1,000 people die every year as a result of salmonella poisoning.

Fortunately, the Burning Question crew survived, although our editor encouraged another round of research and taste testing.

Public health, pasteurization, medical research--these things tamed the wild beast eggnog, slapped it in a milk carton and labeled it Schepps. Eggnog, in answer to this week's question, is now merely a tame shell of its rough and boisterous past.

We're just proud to say that we manfully ignored the threat of dry heaves, shredded innards, hangover, severe weight gain, lactose intolerance and death.

Eggnog, we decided, is the manliest of all drinks.

 
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