‘Tis the season for ugly sweater parties, decking the halls, and all forms of holiday goodies. Eggnog, fruitcake, and gingerbread go hand-in-hand with the holiday season and have a long history as rich as they are. So curl up by the fire and we’ll tell you a tale of how these traditional treats came to be.
Eggnog has been a traditional drink for over a millennium, originally reserved for toasting to prosperity and good health as its ingredients (milk, eggs, and sherry) were foods of the wealthy. The drink didn’t become popular around the holidays until the 1700s, when less expensive ingredients became available in the Americas.
Today, the eggnog you find in the supermarket may be more appropriately named “milknog,” made with as little as 1 percent egg yolk, as the USDA permits. Homemade eggnog is often heavy on the eggs and made will alcohol. In fact, George Washington famously penned his own recipe which included one quart of cream, one quart of milk, one dozen tablespoons of sugar, one pint of brandy, ½ pint of whisky, ½ pint of rum, ¼ pint sherry, and a dozen eggs.(1)
Looking for that traditional eggnog taste without all the calories? Try this low-fat eggnog recipe from the Food Network. To minimize the risks and concerns that come with consuming raw eggs, consider using a pasteurized egg in the shell like Davidson’s Safest Choice Eggs, which can be found in retailers nationwide.
Fruit cake has been a common dessert since Roman times, when it was valued by soldiers for its portability and shelf life. Originally a mix of pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and barley mash shaped into a ring, each new century added its own element to the fruitcake.
Cooks of the Middle Ages incorporated preserved fruit, spices, and honey. In the 16th century, the colonies provided a cheap source of ingredients – cups of sugar (which made the cake denser), candied fruits from the Mediterranean, and nuts were added. The Victorian era introduced alcohol to the fruitcake. In the 18th century, fruitcake was outlawed in Europe for being too decadent. The law was later repealed, as it became a key feature of the English tea hour.
Love it or leave it, fruitcake is commonly considered to be an unwanted dessert. Johnny Carson summed up this sentiment, claiming “the worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”(2)
The exact origin of gingerbread is unknown, although the main flavoring (ginger root) originated in Asia. Gingerbread was introduced to Western Europe from the Eastern Mediterranean in the 11th century. However, in Medieval England, “gingerbread” meant “preserved ginger” an dnot until the 15th century did the term apply to the familiar desserts flavored with ginger, honey, and molasses.(3) Decorated in the shape of flowers, birds, animals, and armor, gingerbread was popular at festivals and fairs. Ladies would even give gingerbread to their favorite knight for good luck in a tournament.(4)
Today, gingerbread can refer to a dark, moist cake or a dense cookie sometimes used to build small decorative houses. The gingerbread house originated in 16th century Germany and was often decorated with foil and gold leaf. It is unclear which came first: the famous fairytale of Hansel and Gretel who discovered a house made of treats, or the actual gingerbread houses.(3)
Do you know the history of your favorite holiday food or tradition? A little bit research can give provide a whole new perspective on something long accepted around your holiday table!
(1) Dias, Elizabeth. “Eggnog Recipes: A Brief History of the Popular Christmas Drink.” Time, Time, 21 Dec. 2011.
(2) Douglas, Julie. “Ultimate Guide to Fruitcake.” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 29 Nov. 2007.
(3) Avey, Tori. “History of Gingerbread and Gingerbread Cookies Recipe.” Tori Avey, Tori Avey: Every Day Inspired by the Past, 16 Oct. 2017.
(4) Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Gingerbread.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 24 Dec. 2008.