From Shakespeare to a West Point Riot: The Creamy History of Eggnog
The world can be divided into two types of people: those who love eggnog and those who think it's gross. Okay, the world can be divided up in a lot more ways than that (western and eastern hemisphere or by favorite teenage mutant ninja turtle), but the point is that eggnog is quite divisive. While it's believed to have been first tied to the holiday season around the time of the American revolution, there's no real universal agreement on the origins of this milky, creamy, custard-y, egg-y holiday drink. So, grab a mug of the frothy stuff and come learn what the yolk is up with eggnog.
Culinary historians believe that a 13th century English drink called "posset" is the direct ancestor of the modern-day eggnog. Billed as "all the rage in the late Middle Ages" by the Glutton's Glossary, it was a concoction often made up of hot milk with warmed ale or sherry and mixed with sugar and spices. Monks sometimes added figs and eggs to it to symbolize good health and prosperity. As the years passed, it became more associated with the wealthy and actually made a passing appearance in Shakespeare's Macbeth as the drink Lady Macbeth poisoned the guards outside of King Duncan's quarters with so they would not hear her murder him. The drink more or less fell out favor by the 19th century, however, it's in midst of somewhat of a revival in the British brunching crowd.
The word "nog" may also stem from Shakespeare's era too. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word dates back to the late 17th century and refers to a very specific type of strong beer that was brewed in Norfolk, England. It seems possible that "nog" was simply a local variation of "posset." Although one other theory about "nog's" origin is that it alludes to the type of cup it was served in, an insulating small wooden mug good at keeping the drink warm.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, British ships sailed across the Atlantic to make their way in the New World. Beyond simply bringing people, the ships dumped old traditions onto these unfamiliar lands. But the new way of life changed some of these Old World customs. While Britain was already rapidly industrializing, farming and agriculture were essential for survival across the pond. Things like eggs and milk that fetched higher prices in England were cheaper in America. So something like posset that was mostly consumed by the wealthy - and included eggs and milk - was much more of a common treat in America. In addition, according to Smithsonian Magazine, since rum came from the Caribbean and wasn't taxed as heavily as other European spirits, this was the alcohol of choice for many colonists. While the exact origins of "eggnog" are not known, it's fair to deduce that it is simply an Americanized version of the British posset, heavy on the milk, eggs and rum.
As further proof that eggnog was a drink of the common Americans, the country's founding father George Washington had his own special recipe that he served during the holiday season at Mount Vernon. The recipe called for one quart of cream, one quart of milk, a dozen tablespoons of sugar and lots of eggs (he did not specify how many eggs, but culinary historians believe it was a dozen). As for alcohol, General Washington was no lightweight with his special batch needing one pint brandy, half pint rye whiskey, half pint Jamaica rum and a quarter pint sherry. The recipe ends with the instruction to "taste frequently."
Related: Holiday Drinks From Around the World
Today, eggnog is more associated with grandma's house, ugly sweaters and a co-worker revealing way too many details about their wife's bunion surgery at the holiday party, but the drink has had a few more colorful historical moments as well. It once started a riot at West Point. In perhaps one of the oddest moments in American history, it began when West Point's strict superintendent Colonel Sylvanus Thayer decided to crack down on the cadet's consumption of alcohol during their annual Christmas Eve blow-out. He assigned two officers - Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock and Lieutenant William A. Thorton - to monitor the evening's proceedings, especially on the North Barracks. Despite warnings and all seemingly quiet around midnight, Hitchcock and Thayer were awoken at 4 AM by drunken eggnog-guzzling cadets. Furious, Hitchcock and Thayer confronted the inebriated men and it quickly erupted into a full-on riot. Shots were fired, fires set ablaze and property destroyed. The next day, the North Barracks was in shambles. Eventually, 19 cadets were expelled from West Point for their role in the "Eggnog Riot," forever losing their potential to place among America's military elite.
In a particular weird historical "what-if," among those who were students at West Point at the time but not expelled, were future Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Though Lee played no part in the riots, he did testify in defense of several of the cadets who would be expelled. As for Davis, he was reportedly enjoying himself that evening too and was a well-known lush at West Point, having run afoul of the alcohol rules before. However, perhaps because he did try to hide the eggnog and was not part of the actual violence, he was spared and allowed to continue at West Point.
In other words, count Jefferson Davis and George Washington among those who loved eggnog.
People Try Eggnog For the First Time: