Drink: eggnog

’Tis the season: The author, about 10, enjoys a cup of eggnog at a neighborhood holiday party circa 1970.

by Charles Upchurch

The converts, they say, are always the worst. A couple of years ago, my wife had never even tried eggnog. Then everything changed. Soon, there were telltale signs of a love affair. Once a week became once a night. And it was only November.

When I opened the refrigerator, the reality of the situation stared me in the face. It was the good stuff. The old-fashioned, heavy glass bottle from Maple View Farm in Hillsborough. Kristin had become a full-fledged eggnog, um, enthusiast.

She is not alone in her unabashed affection, nor in her insistence that eggnog season begins the day after Halloween and concludes with the Super Bowl. How else do you explain the recent phenomenon of Evan Williams bourbon-spiked eggnog, a seasonal offering that inspires breathless runs on Wake County package stores?

Maybe it’s because the stuff is ridiculously tasty, and that among the zealots, if the month ends in ber, ’tis the season.

On the other side of all this exuberance are the traditionalists. For them, eggnog is reserved for those days denoted by capital letters that fall in the shank of the Yuletide. Christmas Eve. Christmas Day. Maybe the day after, if there is a little left over. Because for this tribe, eggnog is a ritual sacrament, a traditional bond between family and friends, an unhurried, kitchen-made family recipe reserved for celebration.

It’s nature’s perfect food, with a kicker. Cream, sugar, eggs and, nearly always, booze. Sure, eggnog au natural can be satisfying if you like sipping cake batter. But with bells on, eggnog is the quintessence of Christmas cheer. Rum is its oldest companion, dating back to the 18th century, when cane spirits were more plentiful and cheaper than whiskey. Today, bourbon and brandy are staples, and even moonshine is openly invited to the party.

If you’ve visited this space before, you know where I come down. Keep your grogs, your mulled ciders and hot wine toddies. Give me an eggnog properly laced with sour mash, throw on Sinatra’s Christmas Waltz and call me George Bailey. Because at that moment, by jingle, it is most certainly a wonderful life.

It is this very sentiment that impels folks to share their eggnog stories.

Take Earl Johnson Jr. A prominent Raleigh businessman, past president of Carolina Country Club, and a descendant of a Raleigh mayor, a North Carolina governor, a U.S. Supreme Court justice appointed by George Washington, and the British Royal Governor of North Carolina, Johnson, 81, was recently recommended to this writer. Not for his family lineage, his success as the founder of Southern Industrial Construction, or for his contributions to the community, which have earned him and his wife Margie a place in the Raleigh Hall of Fame.

It was for eggnog.

“I’ve been making eggnog for 70 years,” Johnson said. “I started helping my mother when I was 9 or 10 and I’ve been doing it every year since.” He shared the family recipe with me, and I was amazed by the simplicity: eggs, whipping cream, sugar, bourbon. The bourbon is not optional. That’s the recipe.

Growing up in Raleigh, Johnson says, a Christmas Eve gathering of family and friends was customary in his parents’ home. His father would make the eggnog, painstakingly “folding” the whipped cream and whipped egg whites into the blended egg yolks, sugar and bourbon for the perfect consistency.

As a young couple in the late 1950s, Johnson and his wife started their own tradition, inviting four other newly married couples over for homemade eggnog. This Christmas Eve, when members of the same five families plus a few more, including dozens of children, grandchildren, in-laws, fiancés and friends, gather at the Johnson home as they have for more than five decades, eggnog will be served in a style unchanged, and a tradition unbroken, since 1941.

And then there is the story of PaDaddy and Big Mama, great-grandparents of Walter’s art director, Jesma Reynolds. I spoke at length with Jesma’s mother, Pam Evans, about her beloved grandparents and their Christmas Day celebrations on the family farm near Rocky Mount. After great detail about a house filled with music – Big Mama (all five feet of her) on piano, PaDaddy on trombone, and other relatives jumping in on Beer Barrel Polka or Rhapsody in Blue – plus Big Mama’s turkey, dressing, collards, butterbeans, cranberry sauce and coconut cake crowding the dinner table, and all the love and good feeling of those blessed occasions, I asked Pam about PaDaddy’s legendary eggnog.

“Oh, I can’t tell you about that.”

She explained that compromising the secret of PaDaddy’s eggnog would surely be met by an unsavory form of Nash County justice. After much pleading, she would only allow that a key ingredient came in a mason jar. “I can tell you it smelled a little bit like apples,” she said.

Evans also said that those Christmas Days were more marvelous than she could express. The music, the singing, the mingled aromas of Big Mama’s Eastern North Carolina cooking and the eggnog PaDaddy was working to finish, the laughter, and then, the Christmas when she was finally old enough to hear someone ask plainly, as if inquiring about the weather, “Pam, would you like a cup of eggnog?”       recipe, page 97