It’s a toss-up between fruitcake and eggnog. Which of the two Baltimore holiday traditions has fallen more from favor?
It was a December ritual. The chief beverage maker in the home laid in a supply of eggs, milk and heavy cream. There was likely a whole nutmeg grater in the pantry. It was generally old and occasionally a bit rusty, but still sharp enough to scrape enough pungent particles from a nutmeg seed.
The other active ingredient, and many would say the most important, was rum or whiskey. In Baltimore, that meant Maryland rye.
Today, at a liquor store, you will find Pennsylvania Dutch, New England, Southern and even Irish eggnogs. No Maryland rye eggnog.
Many mixologists would argue the principal intoxicant in eggnog should be rum and brandy or its fancier cousin, cognac.
The old Hendler Creamery, which made eggnog ice cream, used rum in its variant. The distinct variant of the eggnog beverage was popular in Baltimore as a holiday dessert. Some took the Hendler ice cream product and put it in their own home version of eggnog to add to the creamy taste.
The eggnog ice cream was sold in a rectilinear form known as a brick. There was a Christmas tree design in the middle.
Baltimore chefs and party givers made a show out of eggnog preparation. Some would say it was a trifle pretentious. The presentation could involve a fancy cut-glass punch bowl, or a silver bowl, silver ladle and accompanying cups. But a little display of domestic formality in December wasn’t a bad thing.
About a dozen eggs had to be separated. The yolks were beaten and the whites whipped. Sugar went into the yolks base, then milk or cream plus vanilla extract. The recipes occasionally called for powdered sugar and extra-fine sugar.
A talented eggnog maker knew to float the beaten egg whites on top of the liquid mixture.
The grating of the raw nutmeg came last. This spice imparted the eggnog with its distinctive taste of winter.
Now there was the matter of the amount of alcohol in the beverage. Some eggnogs were potent. The eggs and the dairy ingredients tended to mask the taste but not the effects of the alcohol.
Ted Lingelbach, of Parkville, recalls that in a typical Baltimore December of 70-some years ago, his father took off a little while from his duties as a postal letter carrier.
He said his father, Carl Lingelbach, made the beverage in the family’s Hamilton Avenue home.
“It was a ritual,” he said of the Christmas memory. “Watching my father make his eggnog from a recipe known only to him. Seeing his satisfaction as he tasted the first batch and funneled it into empty and cleaned wine bottles to give to family and friends.”
The elder Lingelbach bought rum from a Hamilton liquor store and did not employ Maryland rye or bourbon.
Eggnog was a social beverage and was meant to be shared with others at Christmas and New Year’s gatherings. Unlike a mixed drink, or cocktail, it was made in quantity and meant to be consumed with family and friends.
Dairies made — and still produce — their own version and sold it in quarts and half gallons, of course, without the alcohol. So, even if you were not handy in the kitchen, and had an aversion to egg beaters, you could enjoy a cup of eggnog, courtesy of Cloverland.
Because of the raw eggs mixed with milk and cream, the eggnog has to be kept cold. It could be stored in a refrigerator or a cold pantry or back porch.
Some makers made quantities of eggnog using oversized bowls and kettles. It definitely tasted better after a few days anyway when all the ingredients had a chance to settle.
And while the basic lineup of ingredients did not vary too much, there was one area where eggnog could stand out. You could have the teetotaler version, absolutely no alcohol, which was something of a milk punch.
Or a low-alcohol version, where rum or rye was added to lightly flavor all that milk and cream.
Some would argue that Maryland rye — such as Wight’s Sherbrook, distilled in Cockeysville or the Pikesville Rye or Hunter Rye was too good to be poured into a tub of eggnog.
Others would just smile and say, “I’ll have one more.”