A brief history of eggnog

eggnog_blogLast week we delved into the history of the popular potted holiday plant, the poinsettia. In keeping with holiday traditions, now we will look into the history of eggnog and how the popular holiday beverage came to be.

Usually sold today between the months of November and December, the sweet, creamy, and delicious drink has a long history dating back to the medieval time period where it started as a mix of hot milk, egg whites, booze, sugar, and spices.

Today, most real eggnog varieties clock in at about 400 or more calories per cup, a hefty percentage of that in saturated fat and cholesterol. And that’s just the calorie count for plain eggnog, without the enlivening brandy, bourbon, or rum that is sometimes added for an extra special kick.

While popular with heavy drinkers in the Middle Ages, it was also traditionally touted as a cure for colds, chills, fever, and flu. Where the word eggnog comes from, however, is still a bit of a mystery. First appearing in writing the late 18th or early 19th century, one article explains the name may have evolved from nog, an old English name for a variety of strong beer, or from noggin, a small wooden mug used to serve drinks in taverns.

The article also states that George Washington was a fan of eggnog, which was made to his specifications and served at holiday parties at Mount Vernon. The first president’s brew wasn’t an eggnog for the fainthearted, given its alcohol content that included brandy, rye whiskey, Jamaica rum and sherry. It was thought that the brandy and sherry were used to prevent spoilage as the concoction was placed in a cold area for several days before being consumed.

The not-insignificant alcohol content of colonial eggnog inevitably led to problems. In 19th-century Baltimore, it was a custom for young men of the town to go from house to house on New Year’s Day, toasting their hosts in eggnog along the way. The challenge: to finish one’s rounds still standing.

The most famous eggnog debauch in American history, however, took place on Christmas Eve in 1826 at West Point Military Academy, in what came to be known as the Eggnog Riot. In that fatal year, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer was attempting to bring order to the floundering academy by instituting restrictive new rules, among these banning cooking in student rooms, outlawing duels, and forbidding the possession or consumption of alcohol.

He was not wholly successful. Protesting cadets, determined to have their holiday eggnog, smuggled in gallons of whiskey from local taverns. The post-party result was a drunken free-for-all. Windows, furniture, and crockery were smashed; banisters were torn from walls, fights broke out. One eggnog-addled cadet tried, but failed, to shoot his commanding officer.

In the sobering aftermath, 19 cadets were expelled — but, with implications for America’s future, neither Jefferson Davis nor Robert E. Lee was expelled, both of whom were in attendance at the time.

Luckily, eggnog these days seldom leads to mayhem — or at least it’s not reported to the police. Instead, today’s version is associated with friendship, conviviality, and mistletoe.

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