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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008

The Origins of Eggnog

Exploring a holiday tradition

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Some holiday customs are so old and established that, as a culture, we've lost sight of their origins and the journey they made to land a spot on our exclusive list of cherished traditions.

Eggnog's seasonal sojourn to the dairy cases of American grocery stores usually begins in early November and ends shortly after New Year's. The rich drink is typically made with eggs, milk, sugar and/or cream. It can be homemade or store bought, made with skim or soy milk, found with or without alcohol, served hot or cold and garnished with all sorts of culinary accoutrements, from ground nutmeg and cinnamon to peppermint sticks, whipped cream, fruit and chocolate curls.

Because of the availability of the ingredients, eggnog can technically be made at any point during the year, and a handful of stores offer it year round. But for some reason, we decided that we really like our eggnog during the season of winter celebrations.

From its origins and etymology to the ingredients used in the original recipe, it seems all aspects of eggnog are up for debate. It is such a rudimentary concoction that it's understandable why it's hard to pin down when and where it came from. Online research sites offer a wealth of interesting facts about the tasty beverage, but you often have to filter through a lot of iffy information that lacks a trail of references. As a result of trusting the research gathered by another writer, the same story, true or not, is told over and over again. So, whether you're in doubt of an article's veracity or just looking for a place to begin, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a trustworthy source.

That being said, the OED's definition of eggnog doesn't really describe eggnog as we know it. It denotes it as "a drink in which the white and yolk of eggs are stirred up with hot beer, cider, wine or spirits." It is believed to be a derivative of posset, a medieval drink dating back as early as the 14th century that was made from "hot milk curdled with ale, wine or other liquor, flavored with sugar, herbs, spices, etc., and often drunk for medicinal purposes." Maybe it's because eggnog and posset were used as remedies for minor illnesses that they are associated with winter months, the height of cold and flu season.

The dictionary states that one of the first written uses of the word "eggnog" occurred in 1788, when the New-Jersey Journal published an article that spoke of "devouring" eggnog. But how did eggnog get its name originally? The use of the word "egg" is obvious; it's the "nog" part that's the subject of speculation. The American Egg Board propagates a theory that "nog" is derived from the word "noggin," a small wooden mug. However, based on a letter written in 1693 by H. Prideaux, the OED defines the word "nog" as a strong variety of beer, with origins in East Anglia, England. Because no "egg noggin" citation has been found during that time period, and because another similar word, "nug," means strong drink, the word "nog" is a more likely etymology of eggnog.

Immigrants traveling across the Atlantic to the English colonies during the 18th century brought their appreciation of eggnog with them. In true American fashion, the recipe evolved, adapting to local tastes wherever it went. So this holiday season, whether you're sipping your eggnog in New Orleans with a heavy dose of bourbon or with fresh coconut juice and rum in Puerto Rico, you're a participant of a rich tradition that has spanned the globe and united us for centuries.
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