By Anne Rothfeld ~
Culinary historians have traced the origins of egg-nog to the medieval British punch called “posset,” warm milk curdled with alcohol such as wine or beer, flavored with spices. In medieval Europe, monks added their own twist by serving posset with figs and eggs. By the seventeenth-century, the aristocracy drank their egg nogs with sherry as a sign of wealth. For example, the recipe for “My Lord of Carlisle’s Sack-Posset” consisted of a heated mixture of cream, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, eighteen egg yolks, eight egg whites, and one pint of sherry.
Egg nog in colonial America was made with rum traded from the Caribbean Islands as it was less expensive than most liquors shipped from England. This rich brew evolved into the essential holiday drink across the colonies, and each area made a version of the drink unique to the region. While many colonists used rum, southern families preferred bourbon or whiskey. When the western states were settled, egg nog was served either hot or over ice, and included different spirits such as Madeira wine, hard cider, or tequila.
In the 19th century, Doctors believed the drink was an ideal way to deliver prescriptions and nutrients for those on liquid diets. Doctors included egg nogs as part of a convalescent diet for patients recovering from typhoid fever, dysentery, diphtheria, operations, ulcers, and tuberculosis. Eggs consist of proteins, fats, and essential vitamins, and support many vital bodily functions. “Warming spices,” including nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric and cayenne have beneficial properties for health, providing relief to stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea and flatulence. An 1884 hospital egg nog recipe for patients in A Nurses Journal runs: “To a tumblerful of milk add one egg, well beaten; sweeten to taste. Tablespoonful of brandy, whisky or port wine.”
Egg nogs formed part of liquid diets for patients as these diets were:
” … easily digestible, … free from irritating condiments and mechanical irritants. … Such diets should be give in small portions, 60-400 cc, depending on the nature of the case. The feedings should be repeated every two hours unless there are contraindications. At least six to eight feedings are required daily.” —Diet Manual, Fitzsimons General Hospital, 1941
In St. Louis, in 1883, Nurses administered the egg nog with two tablespoonfuls brandy at regular intervals throughout the day and night.
“We prepare egg-nog as follows: Take two fresh eggs; fresh, unskimmed milk, one pint; powdered sugar, two heaping tablespoonfuls; brandy or whisky, four tablespoons. Beat the yolks of the eggs till perfectly smooth, then add, gradually, the brandy or whisky, whichever may be preferred. The mixture should be briskly stirred while the spirit is being added. Next add the milk and sugar, and stir till the sugar is dissolved. Now beat the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, place it on the top of the mixture, and upon this grate a little nutmeg. This makes first-class egg-nog, and may be given to invalids requiring stimulants and a fluid diet, in doses of one to four tablespoonfuls every one or two hours.”—Alcohol as a Food, a Medicine, a Poison, and as a Luxury, 1883
Nurses working in private care or homes, were advised to adjust the following basic egg nog recipe to the patients tastes and particularly, to make it fresh and not to let it stand.
“Egg-nogg. Break into a bowl one egg, add to it a saltspoon of salt and two teaspoons of sugar; beat it until it is light but not foamy; then add one cup of slightly warm milk—that is, milk from which the chill has been taken (for it is not well to use that which is ice-cold)—and one or two tablespoons of French brandy; mix and strain it into a tall slender glass, and serve at once. Egg-nog should not be allowed to stand after it is made, for both the egg and the milk lose some of their freshness by exposure to the air…”—A handbook of Invalid Cooking for the Use of Nurses…,1893
Eggs can also be an important food in children’s diets. Full of nutrients, eggs can be eaten fried or boiled as well as added to custards and cakes. In the early 1900s, for those children who disliked eggs, parents were encouraged to make a non-alcoholic egg nog and to disguise the taste by flavoring the drink with chocolate or fruit syrups.
Today, Egg nog is served around the world, complete with regional variations. Mexican egg nog (“rompope”) has hints of Mexican cinnamon and vanilla, and rum or grain alcohol. Puerto Rican egg nog has a tropical feel to it: rum, fresh coconut juice or coconut milk. Peruvians make their egg nog (“biblia con pisco”) with pisco, a pomace brandy. Germans enhance egg nog with an egg liquor (eierlikör): made with evaporated milk and rum, eierlikör is creamy and thick with a custard taste. Other versions of German eggnog include drinks made with beer (“biersuppe”) or white wine (eierpunsch”), flavored with sugar, cloves, tea, lemon or lime juice, and cinnamon.
But the basic egg nog recipe has not changed since the creation of posset: eggs are beaten with sugar, milk or cream are stirred in, addition of a distilled spirit or fortified wine, and steeped with spices. Full-fat milk and cream remain the ideal base while almond and rice milks are delicious alternatives. And while some may find them fortifying in illness, for many, egg nogs are nostalgic and embedded in holiday traditions and family memories.
If you enjoy eggnog this season and choose to make your own from scratch remember never to use raw eggs to prevent food poisoning! The FDA recommends that you use pasteurized shell eggs, liquid or frozen pasteurized egg products, or powdered egg whites.
Anne Rothfeld, PhD, is a librarian and historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.