Eggnog, Wassal, Hot Wine - Oh My!


It is a cold winter night outside while inside a group of family and good friends is clustered around a crackling fire, thinking how wonderful the party foods look, tucked here and there throughout the living room. The genial host grandly sets down a huge bowl of Christmas cheer on the table near the fire. What is this? Eggnog! The crowd good-naturedly surges forward as one to the punch bowl, eagerly clamoring for a cup of alcohol-enhanced ambrosia. Such a fantastic tasting experience! If it is eggnog, then we are celebrating the holiday party-filled days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Happy times for all are coming.

Reaching back in history to about 1775, eggnog enjoyed popularity on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, from England to America. The word “no” in eggnog is thought to have come from an object known as a “noggin,” a small mug made of carved wood. This wooden mug was used to serve drinks to the tavern patrons seated at tables; tankards were used to serve drinks at fireside. (Was this elementary fire protection, assuming the tankards were constructed of metal or some other fire-resistant material?) The eggnog drink itself is descended from a hot British drink known as “posset” which contained eggs, milk, and ale or wine. (Sugar was added some time down the timeline.) Eggnog is used as a toast to ensure everyone’s good health in the year to come. It had many silly-sounding (but memorable) names including egg-flip, egg-hot, and of course eggnog.

Eggnog, in the 18th century, was considered a beverage for the well-off. Milk was quite expensive and therefore economically out-of-bounds for most people. When eggnog made its way over to America, it became easily accessible to all classes because of the large numbers of milk cows there. To give the drink a little “oomph,” rum was often mixed into the eggnog. Rum was relatively inexpensive compared to other alcoholic drinks and easy to obtain, making it the perfect additive.

American Colonial history dictates that there were at least a few special occasions involving eggnog and high society. In Baltimore, Maryland, etiquette demanded the practice of young men calling upon all their friends on New Year’s Day. At each visitation made, the men were offered a cup of eggnog. Not wanting to offend anyone by refusing the proffered cup of cheer, the gents became, in a word, “sloshed” and could barely get back to their own homes.

It was also accepted as doctrine that President George Washington, the Father of America, was an extreme fan of eggnog. He concocted his own version of eggnog which included sherry, rum, and rye whiskey. Only the bravest of his friends were willing to try it.

When thinking about eggnog on a cold winter night, we should always remember the joys of wassail and hot mulled wine, as well as their companion, hot hard cider.

Rather than originally being a drink, wassail first embraced caroling. Some centuries ago, groups of carolers brought cups with them, and while they performed at the doors of the rich, a servant would fill their cups with hot spiced ale, frequently topping off the drink with a floating roasted apple slice.

Hot mulled wine has been popular for centuries. “Mulled” means heated and spiced, making this drink perfect for those cold winter nights. In medieval times, these drinks were named after Hippocrates, the father of medicine, public opinion being that hot wine must be healthier than drinking the polluted water which was available to the masses.

By 1500, cookbooks included various methods of mulling wine. In addition to French wine, honey, cinnamon, cardamon, and galingale (a pungent, aromatic plant related to ginger) were added to the warming mixture. In Victorian England, “Negus,” a version of mulled wine, was served to children at their birthday parties. Mulled wine has been a party drink for hundreds of years.

Some mulled wines are similar to today’s sangrias, sometimes using white wine in place of red. All sorts of things are added in, including oranges, cloves, twelve spice, and more. Do not forget a couple of sticks of cinnamon.

Last, but certainly not the least, is cider. Its use was known of in England before the time of Christ. The apples used to make the cider were rumored to have come from sacred trees.

There was no such thing as alcohol-free cider in years past. Everyone, including pious clergymen and small children, drank cider as matter of course. The cider was not sweet, as there was no refrigeration available. Modern refrigeration has made sweet (nonalcoholic) cider extremely popular. Alcoholic cider is now known as “hard” cider.

Be sure to buy pasteurized cider for your holiday parties as E. coli can lurk hidden in unpasteurized cider.

To your good health! Cheers! L’chaim! Skoal! Bottoms up! Have a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year.


©2006, Terry Kaufman, for Niftykitchen.com
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