Of the many foods associated with the winter holidays, few are as tied to the season as eggnog. Other traditional staples like lamb, turkey, goose, and ham are eaten year-round, or at least they can be. But for the most part, eggnog is rarely produced commercially outside of the final two months of the year. The thick, milky beverage materializes around mid-November, hangs around until New Year’s, and then disappears, not to be whipped up and sprinkled with nutmeg again for another ten months.
Eggnog belongs to the winter. Rich and heavy with froth, foam, cream, and -- depending on the recipe -- spirits, the beverage is a soft insulator against the cold. In fact, eggnog’s ancestors were apparently concocted to serve that very purpose, to offset the arrival of winter and its attendant weather-related infirmities.
Eggnog is generally believed to be a descendant of posset, a sugar-and-spice, hot milk punch curdled with wine or beer. Popular during Medieval times, especially among the nobility and upper class (in the absence of refrigeration only wealthy estates had access to fresh milk), warm posset was administered to those suffering from insomnia and minor illnesses, particularly the common cold. Posset developed into “caudle” over time, as grains, “gruel,” and eventually eggs were added to the mixture as thickening agents and to increase its nutritional value. Eggnog’s predecessors were, in essence, winter tonics.
Eggnog, absent specious medicinal properties of its forbearers, has stayed true to its seasonal roots. Little or no information exists, however, to explain the formidable social association of eggnog with Christmas and New Year’s, or and its abrupt exit afterward. Perhaps the holiday has something to do with eggnog’s ties to health. Following its inception as a restorative potion, posset, and eventually eggnog, soon migrated from the bedside to the parlor where it was used to toast one’s health. Its association with the holidays then seems to make more sense -- what better time to raise a frothy mug to good health than around the holidays in the company of loved ones?
In its purest form, eggnog as it’s known today consists of eggs, milk, cream, sugar, and assorted spices and spirits that vary by region and culture. But the origin of its noggy name is contested.
Eggnog is known to have originated in England, although the origins of its name can be traced to both sides of the Atlantic. In England, two separate yet not too dissimilar explanations arise. One holds that eggnog evolved straight from the word “nog,” Old English slang for strong beer. The second explanation points to the small, wooden mugs used at taverns and pubs called “noggins” in which “nog” and eggnog were first believed to be served.
Eggnog was also quite popular in Colonial America at the height of the “triangular trade” of sugar, slaves, and rum. Rum, which was plentiful and cheap in the New World, was also known as “grog” and took the place of ale, brandy, and wine, eggnog’s traditional Old World ingredients. Some believe the beverage assumed the descriptive name of “egg-and-grog,” which time and convenience whittled down to eggnog.
Eggnog in America
Alongside its abundant rum, Colonial America was home to many small dairy farms, making milk, cream, and consequently eggnog accessible to the general population. This accessibility made a clear mark — somewhat innocuous and somewhat sordid — on America’s character.
George Washington reportedly loved eggnog, so much so that he concocted his own rather boozy brew for the coldest nights at Mt. Vernon. His version of the drink contained not only rum, but ample slugs of sherry, brandy, and whiskey.
In early 19th century Baltimore, it was a New Year’s tradition for young men to partake in what was an eggnog-soaked type of a pub crawl. The carousers would go from one friend’s house to the next, imbibing a generous portion of the beverage at each stop. This lasted throughout the night, or until the eggnog got the better of the revelers and sent them to bed early.
This drink of merriment and good tidings almost altered American history. In 1826, a young Jefferson Davis, then a West Point cadet, was arrested for his involvement in a Christmas eggnog riot. Responding to rumors that cadets planned to include alcohol in their Christmas celebrations, West Point Superintendent Sylvanius Thayer announced that all such festivities were to be alcohol free and he put extra officers on patrol to make sure the cadets fell in line. Davis and a small cadre of friends were not discouraged. They smuggled liquor into the barracks, snuck away to a secret party room, and spiked a batch of eggnog.
Later in the evening, Davis learned that Captain Hitchmod, one of the patrolling officers, was on his way to bust the illicit gathering. Davis burst into the room shouting “Put away the grog. Captain Hitchmod is coming!” Captain Hitchmod was already there, and Davis was summarily arrested and ordered to his room. Davis complied without protest.
Soon afterwards, agitated and inebriated cadets “reeled through the barracks shouting, some with swords, some with muskets, some with bayonets; one fired a musket; another threw a log at an officer.” In all, nineteen cadets were court-marshaled and dismissed. Despite his participation, Davis received no further punishment, which some believe was due to his quick, unquestioning submission to the arresting officer and for remaining in his room throughout the later ruckus.
Commercial eggnog is now extremely popular. During the holiday season, eggnog is available by the carton at most supermarkets, and is sold in special holiday lattes at many coffee shops.
Yet consumers looking for organic or sustainably-produced eggnog have few options. The vast majority of the eggnog on the market is conventionally produced. Consumers looking for eggnog that is not only sustainable and/or organic, but the product of relatively few inputs, would be hard pressed to find a source. But such producers do exist.
One is Ronnybrook Dairy Farm, located in Ancramdale, New York. In 1941, Dave and Helen Osofsky bought the Hudson Valley farm and named it after their eldest son, Ronny. Today, their children and grandchildren manage the farm’s 400 acres and 90 Holsteins. Ronnybrook Dairy Farm’s black and white stippled cows are pasture-raised, feasting on a diet of grass in the summer and corn and hay silage in the winter, and are never supplemented with hormones or antibiotics. From these content cows, the family produces and markets a wide range of dairy products, including milk, butter, ice cream, yogurt, pudding, and eggnog.
Sid Osofsky, brother of Ronny and one of the owners of Ronnybrook, eagerly touts his eggnog. “It’s dangerously good” he says. Others agree. Ronnybrook’s eggnog was named “Best of the Hudson Valley” by Hudson Valley Magazine. New York Magazine rated it as “Excellent.” And The New York Times also gave it rave reviews.
All of the milk and cream used in Ronnybrook’s eggnog is produced on-site. “It’s all fresh,” Sid says, “meaning within two days we're using the milk and cream our cows produced.” In addition, the milk is not ultra-pasteurized. Ultra-pasteurizing, which is usually practiced on larger, conventional dairies, destroys many of the enzymes and kills all of the bacteria, even the beneficial kinds, naturally found in milk. This gives the milk a longer shelf life of up to two to three months. Ronnybrook dates its milk for thirteen days.
An off-site manufacturer makes Ronnybrook’s eggnog base or flavoring. About ten years ago, the Osofskys approved the recipe for the base and haven’t changed it, since they “found the flavor so satisfying.” The base contains a mixture of traditional eggnog seasonings like nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar, along with other solids added for texture. The flavoring is shipped to the farm, where it’s mixed with the milk and cream.
Sid maintains that everyone, the conventional and organic producers, probably makes eggnog and flavored dairy products the same way — importing seasonings and such. But, he says, “the raw ingredients [milk and cream] are ours; they're not from 1,000 farms mixed together. That’s where the whole thing starts. That’s a large part of it.” He adds, “Also, our milk travels very little distance, which maintains the integrity of the milk. We have the cleanest milk that you can have, unless you want it fresh or raw.”
Ronnybrook Dairy Farm products are available from the farm directly and at several retail outlets throughout the Hudson Valley and New York City. Consult their website for a complete list of stores. Eggnog is only available from November 1st through January 1st.
As Sid pointed out, it is difficult to find a dairy product, such as eggnog, that can’t be traced back to myriad farms and assorted manufacturers. Vermonters, however, have it a bit easier than most, thanks to Strafford Organic Creamery, a one-farm, one-family operation.
According to Amy Huyffer, who runs the creamery with her husband Earl Ransom, the farm has always been organic, even before there was certification. Earl’s father helped to establish the Northeast Organic Farming Association, a non-profit association of gardeners, diversified farmers, and consumers, that provides organic certification and other agricultural services.
Amy and Earl manage 600 acres of land and milk approximately 40 cows (Guernseys and Jerseys) at any one time. They started producing eggnog four years ago and it never fails to sell out. “It’s the best eggnog around,” Amy claims.
Everything that goes into Stafford’s eggnog is certified organic and mixed on the farm. As Amy says, all the ingredients are ordered individually and have not been pre-mixed, “there are no gummy things like carrageen. All thickness comes from cream and eggs.” The milk and cream are produced on-site. The eggs are sourced locally. And the other base ingredients, such as the nutmeg and sugar, are ordered from organic distributors. Amy notes that “ten years ago it would have been really hard to get all the organic ingredients. But now it’s not. There are catalogs and food brokers and I deal directly with my brokers. Demand seems to be increasing.”
While sourcing all the ingredients may not be difficult, mixing them on the farm definitely is. By Amy’s account, it’s the nutmeg that causes most of the problems. “Nutmeg gets caught in every single surface,” she says. “It will find every place in the gasket.” In the end, once there’s nothing more to mix and the last drop of eggnog has found its way through the pipes and into the bottles, it’s time to clean. Thanks in large part to the fine coating of nutmeg, it can take seventeen hours, if not more, to clean the works.
So, with all the hassle, why do they do it? “We do it for love,” she says. If it wasn’t for that love, there would be quite a few disappointed eggnog enthusiasts in Vermont. Demand for Strafford Organic Creamery’s eggnog has risen each year to the point where store owners submit inquiries as early as August.
Strafford Organic Creamery eggnog is not available from the farm, but from the 25 to 30 Strafford-area retail outlets that sell Amy and Earl’s products. The creamery typically produces about five batches through the holiday season—one the week before Thanksgiving, another two weeks later, and then another batch each week until New Year’s.
Consumers looking for their local versions of Strafford Organic Creamery or Ronnybrook Dairy Farm can consult the Eat Well Guide, an online directory of stores, restaurants, and small farms across the U.S. and Canada that offer sustainably-raised meat, dairy, and egg products. Similar dairies listed in the guide offer eggnog for the holiday season. To search for one in your area, go to the Eat Well Guide, enter your zip code, and you'll find local farms and outlets that produce eggnog.