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A brief history of eggnog
From humble roots to luxury and back to common again

12/24/15
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



Eggnog, a drink that owes its origins to common folk living in medieval Britain, has had many iterations both in its homeland and in North America over the centuries.

 
Formerly known as posset
Associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire Nicoletta Gullace says the first known versions of eggnog appeared as far back as 900 years ago.
“It was a milky drink called a ‘posset’ that was popular in the middle ages,” Gullace said. “It was hot milk mixed with ale or wine of some sort.” 
It was started in East Anglia, and Gullace said that around the 1200s or 1300s, monks began to add egg to the mixture in order to lend the drink its frothy texture.
It’s believed the drink was common among regular, working peasants, though it’s unclear how often they could have afforded it.
A few hundred years later, eggnog’s status took a dramatic turn.
“Where it started to become really popular and take its modern form was in the 1600s, where they mixed milk and eggs not just with ale but with more expensive kinds of alcohol. That actually helped preserve the milk and the eggs in the days before refrigeration,” Gullace said. 
The drink then became an aristocratic mainstay among the landowning classes. And as lords required more and more agricultural produce from their increasingly dependent peasants, eggs and milk became luxury items for commoners.
“It really became a sort of fancy beverage at that period of time,” Gullace said.
Lords and kings would add expensive spices imported from the East like nutmeg and cinnamon.
“It was known not as eggnog but as ‘egg flip,’ because it was poured from one jug to another to get that kind of frothiness in it,” Gullace said. “It was a recipe very similar to the recipe for custard, but the alcohol would have prevented it from setting.”
Commoners could create cheaper versions of the drink using bread as a thickener instead of egg, and the most luxurious possets would have milk, cream and sugar.
While it was easily available to the wealthy, the preservative nature of the alcohol probably made it a drink consumed year-round rather than on a seasonal basis.
 
Emancipated eggs
The next major shift in the storied past of eggnog occurs during the colonial era of North America.
“When eggnog arrived in the American colonies in the 1700s, it was democratized because lots of family farms had milk and eggs, and these weren’t the sort of luxury items they were in Britain,” Gullace said.
Not only were the eggs and milk more plentiful and accessible, but there was a change in the type of liquor used.
“In the colonies, they started mixing it with rum, instead of expensive things like madeira and brandy,” Gullace said.
Like milk, rum was plentiful in the colonies. This however, reveals the dark side of American eggnog. The availability of rum, produced mainly in the Caribbean, was the byproduct of the infamous “Triangular Trade” between Western Europe, Africa and the Americas. In other words, the shipping of rum north to places like Boston or Portsmouth was part and parcel of the slave trade.
Still, eggnog was not attached in the cultural psyche to Christmas.
“People drank this pretty regularly. Not as a seasonal drink but as a year-round drink, until the time of the American Revolution,” Gullace said.
During the Revolutionary War, rum grew more scarce due to the British presence in the colonies, Gullace said. But, ever the enterprising booze-drinkers, Americans improvised.
“Americans started sneaking moonshine into their eggnog,” Gullace said.
But they couldn’t produce as much moonshine. Others replaced rum with whiskey.
There is evidence that Americans during this time were pretty loose with what types of liquor could go in eggnog. Even George Washington had an eggnog recipe, which included several types of liquor.
“Apparently, he served it up at Mount Vernon and it not only had eggs and cream, but brandy, rye whiskey, rum and sherry in it,” Gullace said.
Washington’s eggnog is believed to have contained about 400 calories per glass.
Still, the war changed how often the drink was consumed.
“Historians believe it was around that time it becomes a seasonal drink, just because it’s harder to get all of the ingredients, it’s more of a treat and it has to be limited more,” Gullace said.
She says historians suspect Americans began attaching eggnog to the Christmas season around the late 1700s to the early 1800s.
The clearest evidence of this occurred in 1826 at the United States Military Academy at West Point during what was later termed the Eggnog Riot. It was really more of a drunken party among cadets, but scandalized by the fact that alcohol was made illegal on school grounds by superintendent Sylvanus Thayer. 
The prohibition threw a wrench in the works of a planned Christmas party, which at the time necessitated the consumption of eggnog.
“The West Point cadets felt that their Christmas tradition was being violated, so they sneaked whiskey across the Hudson river to put in their eggnog,” Gullace said.
About 70 cadets were implicated, including Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederate States of America, and about 20 were court-martialed.
 
In a name
The name ‘eggnog’ is a matter of much debate among historians, according to Gullace. 
Some believe that the “nog” in eggnog comes from the word “noggin.”
“Apparently, noggin was the wooden cup that people used to drink alcoholic beverages, so one theory is that it was an egg drunk out of a nog, thus eggnog,” Gullace said.
Others think that’s just a coincidence. 
“I think that maybe a more plausible explanation is that ‘grog’ was a slang word for rum in the American colonies so it was ‘egg grog’ that gradually evolved into eggnog,” Gullace said. 





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