The egg has been a staple of human consumption for as long as humans have been hunting. They were simple to gather from birds, and as early as 6000 B.C. we were domesticating chickens for their eggs. Early man discovered that if they took the eggs of chickens after they laid them, the chickens would keep laying eggs. Sure, they tried the eggs of other birds, but there was something to the size of the chicken egg and accessibility to chickens that made their eggs the favored ones. Eggs gave them an abundant and, as recent scientific research has shown, incredibly healthy source of food. Cooked eggs in recipes were not mentioned until the Greeks started to experiment with them around 25 BC, when Apicius used them as a binder and thickener in a variety of sauces and custards. The Romans used them hard boiled as an appetizer or beaten into a cheesecake-like dessert known as libum. It was during the decline of the Roman Empire that the Christian church rose to power, partially with the help of Emperor Constantine. He protected the Christians, as well as many other sects, and allowed their religion to flourish under his reign.
Not that Christians have anything to do with eggs. They borrowed the symbolism of the egg from the Romans, looking at it as the promise of rebirth where pagans used it as a sign of fertility. Some Eastern Orthodox Christians started to dye the eggs red during Lent to represent the blood of Christ and further symbolize the resurrection of the Lord. It was not like they were doing anything else with the eggs. Along with milk, cheese, and the meat of most things that walked on land, eggs were eventually banned from Lenten plates.
According to medieval scholar Saint Thomas Aquinas: Eggs and milk foods are forbidden to those who fast, for as much as they originate from animals that provide us with flesh … Again the Lenten fast is the most solemn of all, both because it is kept in imitation of Christ, and because it disposes us to celebrate devoutly the mysteries of our redemption. For this reason, the eating of flesh meat is forbidden in every fast, while the Lenten fast lays a general prohibition even on eggs and milk foods.
Which puts a crimp in the diet of the average medieval citizen. The abundance of eggs was an excellent substitute for meat, and allowed them to make bread to fill their bellies when harvest was thin and taxes were high. Eggs last longer without refrigeration than many other foods. Considering the first refrigerator was not going to be around until the 20th century, this was a prime consideration when deciding on what to have for a meal. It was good that eggs have a long shelf life. Chickens have no idea when Lent begins and ends. They just keep laying eggs, making more food that somehow has to be stored. Many of the eggs were hard boiled at the beginning of the forty days to keep them around as long as possible. So on Easter, when the fast could be broken, there was a feast of brightly colored eggs to be consumed. Or, as they would sometimes do in the Middle Ages, drank.
We tend to think of eggs as meal, but eggs are very welcome in drinks as well. It is more than likely that is how consuming them before cooking them became common knowledge. This practice, while not likely lost, is not really historically discussed. Peasants during the Dark Ages may have been drinking them, but not raw. They would mix them with milk, alcohol and other spices to make a posset. Possets were initially used either as medicine or to keep warm at night. Over time, the upper class adopted the beverage, but used better liquor and spices.
A Modern Sack Posset – from Reader’s Digest (Australia)
6 Egg Yolks
3 Egg Whites
1 c./ 235 mL Fino Sherry
¼ tsp. Ground Cinnamon
¼ tsp. Ground Mace
¼ tsp. Nutmeg
2/3 c. Sugar
4 c./ 945 mL Cream
Nutmeg for garnish
Garnish: Nutmeg and sugar
Bring a pot of water to a boil on the stove. Pour all of the egg material, sherry and spices into a heat safe mixing bowl and mix until they are well blended. Put the bowl on top of the boiling water, allowing the mixture to warm up but not overheat. Pour all but 1 tsp. of sugar into the cream and heat it to a boil. Pour the heated cream mixture into the egg mixture, whisking as you pour until the mixture is frothy. Let the posset sit for five minutes, then top with the sugar and nutmeg. Serve in the mugs and enjoy!
As you can guess, this is a pretty rich drink. The alcohol itself was more a “what is available” question as opposed to a specific requirement. Sherry, also known as sack, was most common, as was beer, wine, and madeira. With an adjustment to the recipe, it becomes a little different experience. The posset layers, with a rich foamy layer on top made up of the curds of the milk, then a custardy layer in the middle, and an alcoholic layer on the bottom. Pots were made specifically to enjoy them, with a spout that went right to the bottom later. You could have a bite of curd, then wash it down with a sip of alcohol. It was a popular dish for roughly two centuries, then started to fall out of favor.
As posset slowly circled the drain of history, the eggnog began to rise. Maybe because of the simplicity of the drink compared to the posset, maybe because the odd pot did not carry well to the United States. It may also be a shifting of why people were drinking it; possets started off as a curative, then evolved into something to drink for pleasure. Eggnog was a drink for parties at holiday times. Most bars at Christmas time would have a bowl of it warmed and ready to go waiting for all comers. Like the posset, the liquor that fueled the nog depended on what part of the country you were from. Bourbon and rum would be popular in the south, while New England would enjoy brandy or rum. And by some reports, the longer eggnog sat, the better it became. Alton Brown has a lovely recipe for aged eggnog that calls for the concoction to sit for up to a month. Of course, Alton Brown also has the benefit of refrigeration.
Eggs were added to cocktails during the Golden Age of Cocktails in the late 19th century, but there was not much deviation from eggnog. The Egg Flip was mentioned by many bartending books (a throwback to colonial America), and William T. “Cocktail” Boothby introduced the world to the Egg Lemonade (which does not have lemon juice in it). It was also at this time that the whites began to be separated for cocktails. The flavor we associate with the egg comes from the yolk; the albumen (white) is essentially flavorless. This was perfect for adding that extra body without making an Old Fashioned take like whiskey and scrambled eggs. The use of eggs in cocktails was sharply curtailed by the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1906. As they started to dig into food safety, they saw there were some dangers to consuming raw eggs. Salmonella was discovered in the late 19th century, and is the most common food borne illness issue related to eggs. While most of the bacteria is found on the shell, it is possible for the bacteria to slide its way into the yolk. To increase the safety of eggs in your cocktails, use pasteurized eggs. It is estimated that your chance of getting salmonella from a raw egg is very, very, very low. The FDA calculates the risk of getting a contaminated egg is 1 in 40,000. In perspective, your chance of choking to death on a piece of food is 1 in 4,000. As long as you, or the bar you are drinking at, is taking good care of the egg, you really don’t have much to worry about. The biggest risk of illness is to the elderly or those with a compromised immune system.
One thing all egg cocktails have in common, other than eggs, is the fact they have to be shaken thoroughly. Look at the recipe for the posset and for Mr. Brown’s eggnog, and you will see a trend. When you add an egg to a recipe, a beating has to take place. That egg is going to have a rough time of it. The most extreme beating eggs ever received in a cocktail was a Ramos Gin Fizz.
Pour all of the ingredients other than the soda water into a mixing tin without ice. Shake hard for 30 seconds, then add ice and shake for another 30 seconds. Pour into the rocks glass, then pour the soda into the tin to extract any remaining foam. Pour that into the glass as well, then serve.
One minute does not sound like a long time, but that is not how it started. This cocktail was shaken for up to twelve minutes in its heyday. Henry Ramos, the creator of the cocktail, insisted this was a key part of the experience. He would have up to thirty people shaking hard to keep up with demand. But there was a reason egg cocktails get abused so much. Eggs are tough.
The evolutionary curve of the egg was not intended to be a delicacy. It was intended to feed a baby animal until it had enough size and strength to break out of the protective shell. To that end, there has to be a lot of power shoved into a little package. There are long strands of protein tightly wound through the egg, ready to feed the hungry baby. That density makes the egg pretty viscous and a little off-putting to drink on its own. Fortunately for us, the bonds that keep the proteins together are not very strong. They can be broken by heating them up, whisking them, adding acid (like citrus or alcohol), or shaking the hell out of it. As they unwind, they expose both water loving (hydrophilic) and water hating (hydrophobic) ends, creating a web that traps air in place. That is why a good beating will make meringue, light scrambled eggs, a fluffy bread, or a thick foam for the top of a cocktail. You must be careful; too much heat or beating will tighten the web and force all of the air out, eliminating the foam and making an egg you can bounce off the floor. The yolk has a neat trick that is helpful in the kitchen as well. It acts as a great emulsifier, allowing oil and water to mix. The lecithin in the yolk brings the two incompatible liquids together, allowing you to add a variety of oils into a cocktail. Or make a delicious mayonnaise. Which I do not recommend for cocktails.
The gold standard for getting a good foam on a cocktail is the dry shake. Put the egg (usually just the white) in with the rest of the ingredients and shake hard, sans ice, for a minute or so, then add ice and continue the shake until the mixing tin freezes your hand. It is essentially turning the egg into a mini meringue, but not sealing the deal. There is a rising tide that is advocating the reverse dry shake, which is exactly what is sounds like. They are saying the resulting foam is lighter and fluffier when you shake with the ice first, strain it into the other side of the mixing tin, then finishing the shake without ice. You can then just pour the fluffy mixture into the glass and serve, no straining. There was a little experiment done using the Ramos Gin Fizz as a subject. While the results were not breathtaking, the reverse dry shake DID offer more foam than it’s traditionally mixed partner. It is definitely worth looking into as an experiment at your bar.
The amount of versatility packed into the contents of an egg is mind numbing. The fact that humans have embraced it as a food, a drink, a symbol, and a staple shows just how much this protein packed delicacy impacted its earliest adopters. Other foods have come and gone, but the egg has endured over millennia. As long as our bird friends keep producing eggs, humans will seek them out and consume them in a variety of forms. It can be utilized as an appetizer, a main course, a dessert, and a drink. While you are enjoying the Easter holiday, pause a moment to think about all that you can do with the brightly colored treat you are about to consume. And I do not mean the jelly beans.
Brian Petro, a native of the great state of Ohio, found himself in the town of Dayton after graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art. His path has wound through the design, education, and restaurant industries, all of them adding a little something to the overall flavor of his creative endeavors. The first time he stepped behind a bar, it felt like home. Ever since, he has absorbed all of the liquor knowledge he can find, from culture to history to recipes, and done his best to share what he knows with the world. Or, at least the readers of Dayton Most Metro, where he is the writer about all things cocktail. He also likes the word “Brilliant” too much and appreciates the beauty of winter more than most. Follow him @SmartGuyInATie.