Tom and Jerry, and boughs of holly

What’s Christmas without this light, spicy drink, a holiday staple that no one’s heard of?
Sarah Elton

When we emptied out my grandmother’s  house for her move, I inherited a number of obscure kitchen objects: her  oatcake flipper, her ancient cast-iron Yorkshire pudding moulds, and her  bright red enamel paella pot. What I cherished most, however, was an old  mimeographed copy of the family recipe for the Tom and Jerry, a hot beverage  served in the days around Christmas and New Year’s. My family has made the Tom  and Jerry to mark the season for as long as I can remember. I can’t imagine  Christmas without it, and yet I’ve never met another person who knows of its  existence.

The recipe, typed on a now-yellowing sheet of paper by my  great-grandfather and adorned with a hand-drawn sprig of ivy, calls for six  eggs, separated, with the egg whites beaten stiff. The instructions are to  blend the yolks with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and so much powdered sugar that  the mixture becomes too stiff to stir—I’ve witnessed the beaters of my  grandmother’s Mixmaster seize while making the Tom and Jerry. Then the whites  are folded in and the batter is ready for the addition of brandy, rum and some  hot milk. The drink is often mistaken for eggnog. But eggnog it is not. A Tom  and Jerry is light and spicy, with a sweet foamy crown that forms when  scalding hot milk is poured onto the batter placed in the bottom of a mug,  then stirred quickly, which causes the egg whites to rise. Once you’ve  sprinkled the top with freshly ground nutmeg it is ready to drink.

The Tom and Jerry’s origin is a bit of a mystery. Ted Haigh, author of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, says it was probably invented by Pierce Egan, a British journalist who lived in the 1800s and wrote the popular novel The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq. and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom (hence Tom and Jerry). Egan is said to have named the drink after his characters as a publicity stunt. Others hold that a famous American bartender, “Professor” Jerry Thomas, concocted the Tom and Jerry in the 1850s. The recipe credited to him calls for 12 eggs and is served with hot water rather than milk; yet another version suggests mixing the booze and batter with coffee. The only Tom and Jerry certainty is that there is no connection between the drink and the cartoon.

However it began, for about 100 years the drink was extremely popular in the United States. So popular that you could buy Tom and Jerry sets, with a large bowl for the batter and matching mugs with “Tom and Jerry” written across them in cursive gold. My family owns two of these and you can still buy the mugs on eBay. People could also order a Tom and Jerry when they went out: throughout the winter, bartenders would whip up a mug to warm a chilled patron.

Which could be why we make the Tom and Jerry in my family. As a university student in San Francisco in the 1930s, my grandfather was a bartender at the famous restaurant Trader Vic’s, which served them. (It still sells a jar of the mix for US$4.99, which can also be ordered online.) Then again, it could have been my great-grandparents who started the tradition— they made them too. If you count my kids, we make up five generations of Tom-and-Jerry drinkers. Haigh was shocked to learn this. “I’ve never known anyone to make it as an aspect of tradition rather than revival—as in through their family line,” he said.
My grandparents were known for their annual Tom and Jerry parties, where they’d serve hundreds of mugs of the stuff in one night. (Marshall McLuhan, a friend of my grandfather’s, was a frequent beneficiary.) My grandmother swore the milk countered the effects of the alcohol, and after the Second World War, when my grandfather went to work for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, NATO’s military arm, they took the Tom and Jerry with them. In Paris, a German general was flummoxed to receive an invitation to a Tom and Jerry party. He was dismayed by what a “Jerry” could be.

I love Tom and Jerries and I drink them in quick succession as I did at those annual parties at my grandmother’s house. That house was sold last year. It has been gutted and rebuilt by a developer to suit modern tastes, the wood panelling stripped and the fireplace in the hall demolished. Haigh posits that it was central heating that wiped out the Tom and Jerry, relegating it first to Christmastime—a quaint bit of nostalgia for 20th-century folk—and then to the history books. Such is the path of progress. And I wouldn’t trade my furnace for a Tom and Jerry, but it is nice to go back in time once a year.