Monday, December 10, 2007

Me and Tom & Jerry

In terms of cuisine, my family had a strange relationship with Christmas. The night before Christmas meant my father's preferred meal of oyster stew, a tradition he carried over from his childhood. I never did understand its origins and never met another soul who celebrated the night that way. Christmas Day could mean anything from lasagna to chicken breasts stuffed with cheese to chicken curry; we never once had ham or turkey.

And when it was time for a libation, nobody every suggested egg nog. It was Tom & Jerrys all the way. Growing up, I thought everyone drank Tom and Jerrys on Christmas. I only learned different when I went away to college, and when I moved to New York City shortly after, I discovered that most of the population not only abstained from the drink, but didn't even know what the hell it was. The cartoon, they knew. The drink, no.

The Tom & Jerry dates back the stone age of cocktails, going back nearly 200 years. Many are under the misconception that bartender extraordinaire Jerry Thomas invented it (Jerry himself was one of them). Whoever did come up with it, the thing was a smash. No yuletide throughout much of the 19th century was celebrated without bowls upon bowls of the egg-laden, spice-haven, rum and brandy-laced concoction. You can still find Tom & Jerry bowls and cups on eBay and in antique stores.

The Tom & Jerry waned with the rise of the cold cocktail and pretty much died with Prohibition. But for some reason, it retained a grip on the upper Midwest, including my home state of Wisconsin. Can't say why. It may be because hot drinks remain attractive in cold climates. It could be Wisconsin's strange attachment to brandy. Anyway, my parent never did without their Tom & Jerry on Dec. 25. Neither did their friends. It was so popular that Tom & Jerry "mix" could be purchased at any grocery store or liquor shop.

I never remember liking the drink. It just seemed like hot water laced with bad booze and milk, topped with cinnamon. It's very possible my parents didn't make a top notch Tom & Jerry. (Very possible.) Ten years ago, I found some Tom & Jerry mugs at a stoop sale, and honored the occasion by trying to mix up a batch of hooch on my own. Again, it was awful, but, in fairness, I recall having bought fairly cheap rum and brandy. (This was before my spirits re-education.) After that I gave up.

In researching a recent article for the New York Sun about holiday drinks, however, my curiosity has again been aroused. I know what should be done, now, and will give it a shot again this X-mas. First, however, I may drop by The Pegu Club where, I'm told, Audrey Saunders mixes up a bad Tom & Jerry. I obviously need instruction


Paul said...

My family Christmas was mainly a jug of Gallo at Christmas dinner (okay, I'll be fair -- more likely it was Riunite) and some E&J Brandy poured into Safeway eggnog. Then again, I grew up in Oklahoma, where the upper Midwest seemed absolutely cosmopolitan.

In recent years I've become a Tom & Jerry convert, and I'm preparing to mix a batch on Christmas morning, to fill those mugs I picked up on eBay (genuine, made in Japan). My current version started with Audrey's recipe from the NYTimes a couple years back, but I scooched the sugar back a bit along with adding some homemade allspice liqueur. I like it, and since past the first round I'm usually the only one drinking it, that's what matters.

Of course, I'm also preparing an aged eggnog for Christmas Eve, so I'm putting some faith that egg yolks beaten and stored in a lot of booze for three weeks won't put me out of commission for the big day. Fingers crossed.

Anonymous said...

My family has enjoyed having Tom and Jerry's every Christmas day for decades. Beginning around 11:00 a.m., we have an open house to which relatives, neighbors, and friends are invited.
We offer lots of hors d'oeuvres and sweets to our guests. Having grown up in Wisconsin, I learned about this tradition from my father's relatives who were of Welsh descent. --RKD

tomdelorme said...

Great post, I too am from Wisconsin -- but have never had a tom & jerry -- great blog, love your stuff.

Lars123 said...

I grew up in Cody, Wyoming, the town that Buffalo Bill started. As a young kid in the early sixties, I remember my Dad always making Tom and Jerry's, the Christmas drink. You could find the batter in the dairy section of any grocery store.

I moved to New Jersey in 1988 and noticed that no one there knew what a Tom and Jerry was, I found that strange consider how popular they were in Wyoming.

I am living in North Carolina now, I don't think they know what they are here either. I am thinking about making my own batter this year. There are lots of recipes on the internet. On Christmas I just can't wait to have a Tom and Jerry with my family. I don't think they know what they are either. It is going to be fun! Dad I will have one for you too.

Happy Holidays! 2010