Ask Rufus: Holiday libations

November 24, 2012 8:25:57 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Thanksgiving has now passed and Christmas is fast approaching, which raises that perennial holiday beverage controversy: What is the favored Christmas libation, eggnog or milk punch? 


In West Point, Danny Rainey is unequivocal that the Christmas season calls for eggnog. He uses his Uncle David's recipe which was said to be an old Tuscaloosa recipe. Danny explained that you start with a fifth of bourbon, a fifth of rum and a fifth of brandy and if you are not careful it will only make a pint of eggnog. Thomas Easterling's tastes are different. He responded, "I prefer milk punch, though I must warn the uninitiated that it can result in a world-class hangover if over-served." 


In Columbus, Mary Margaret Roberts recalled; "Rufus, over on this branch of the tree, it's boiled custard with add-ins of bourbon or amaretto for those so inclined. Grandmother makes fabulous boiled custard and used to bring two gallons for Christmas dinner at our house. Just thinking about it makes me want to get in the kitchen and start stirring." 


Marleen Hanson commented, "My father made his own recipe for eggnog, but we have also tried the Westmoreland Club recipe (Richmond, Va.), and it was amazing. Had to add another making of the 'egg' because the 'nog' was double trouble!" 


Some families apparently have a mixed tradition. Joey and Carol Faulkner prefer eggnog but Joey "had an aunt in Louisiana that loved milk punch," she said. Some people just have a different view of the whole eggnog or milk punch question. Robert White commented that he preferred eggnog over milk punch but had really rather have a Bloody Mary. 


Eggnog and milk punch both have deep Southern roots. In Mark Kurlansky's wonderful history of American food, "The Food of a Younger Land," he quotes Jack Kytle about an Alabama eggnog: "An Alabama eggnog is one that caresses the palate with velvety gentleness, and then once it is within the stomach, suddenly becomes the counterpart of a kicking mule." One advantage that the typical eggnog has over milk punch is that a good eggnog is just as tasty even without the mule's kick being added. 


The oldest recipe for a milk-based party drink I have found used in an old Columbus cookbook (the 1825 "Virginia Housewife") was a non-alcohol drink called an orgeat. It was a drink that is probably ancestral to the modern Mai Tai or a Planter's Punch. The drink was called "a necessary refreshment at all parties." The recipe continues: "Boil two quarts of milk with a stick of cinnamon, and let it stand to be quite cold, first taking out the cinnamon; blanch four ounces of the best sweet almonds, pound them in a marble mortar with a little rose water..." The strained almonds would then be mixed with luke-warm milk. 


By about 1850 eggnog had become a popular Christmas-time drink in Southern homes. "Diddie Dumps and Tot," which is Louise-Clarke Pyrnelle's 1882 account of growing up on an ante-bellum plantation near Selma, Ala., tells of a pre-Civil War Christmas party. "The supper was enjoyed hugely, particularly a big bowl of eggnog." A typical Old Alabama eggnog contained only eggs, sugar, whiskey and whipped cream. Whiskey was added in the proportion of two tablespoons for each egg used. 


An 1884 cookbook, "Breakfast, Luncheon and Tea," contains a popular recipe for milk punch. It was called Rum Milk Punch and stated: "1 cup of milk warm from the cow, 1 tablespoon of best rum, 1 egg, whipped light with a little sugar, a little nutmeg. Pour the rum upon the egg-and-sugar; stir for a moment and add the milk; strain and drink." Sounds a lot like what is called eggnog. The recipe calls it a good drink before breakfast. 


Maybe in spite of opinions the only real difference between eggnog and milk punch is whether or not egg is added to a basic milk punch.  


And my favorite: At Christmas we always have a milk punch that is a combination of a recipe from my grandmother's 1942 hand-written recipe book and a recipe Virginia Hooper shared with my parents around 1950.  


The recipe we use is: 2/3 quart of good bourbon, 1/3 quart of brandy, 1/2 quart of rum, 2 quart of milk, 1 quart half-and-half, 10 Tablespoons of powdered sugar. Mix all ingredients and chill. Nutmeg may be sprinkled on top before serving. It makes about 30 servings. A warning though: One year at a pre-midnight mass Christmas party, a member of the church choir enjoyed one too many. She made it to church to sing in the choir but unfortunately fell asleep during the service and started snoring.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]