Tom and Jerry, and boughs of holly

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


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.


Tom and Jerry, and boughs of holly

  1. You are not alone, there are others who know of Tom and Jerries. Eric Felten wrote a concise history of the drink a year or two ago in the "Wall Street Journal." My father never missed "Tom and Jerry Day" at the local bar in, first, Willow City, ND, and then Bottineau, ND. Those bars still have "Tom and Jerry Day" when community folks gather to lift one as they wish one another a Merry Christmas. (Happy Holidays is too generic for the T & J crowd.)
    K Johnson, Carbondale, IL

  2. Tom and Jerry's are not unknown here in the land of Trader Vic's. (Bay Area, California) You can buy the mix in almost any grocery store.

  3. I been following this thread for a while, keep it going

  4. Four generations at my home this Christmas sitting around the kitchen table when my Mom blurted out "Let's Make Tom and Jerry's!" Almost everyone looked at her quite puzzled. My grandparents too had made them every Christmas, but no one seemed to remember how. Having all the ingredients for the first internet search recipe hit we tried it, using the regular sugar called for. Mom sipped…… then frowned. Then it hit her out of nowhere that her parents used powdered sugar, and the end batter was much thicker. We had an absolute blast trying to recreate it, everyone in the family huddled around, try this, try that, beat it thicker, now it's too thin….until my Mom's taste bud's agreed. The sense of taste is not unlike smell in that it can take you right back to a time gone by. In hope of recreating the fun for years future I went to the antique shop today and bought my very own Tom and Jerry set. My husband thinks I am nuts, but what a fun way to touch on Christmas past, and a tasty one! Thanks for sharing your story, and recipe! Will try it this way next year.

  5. For five generations of my husbands family, a little town in Alberta, Canada has also had a "Tom & Jerry Day" before Christmas. The drinks years ago were made by pouring boiling water on top of Brandy, Rye, and Rum. Egg whites and yolks were beaten separately, then combined with icing sugar, which was then poured on top of the hot drink. Nutmeg added by each individual. Today they omit the Brandy but all other ingredients are the same. It's just a time for visitation and wishing all your friends you haven't seen ,for possibly a year, a very Merry festive season. We also have the Tom & Jerry bowl with 6 mugs to go with it. A real keep sake in our books.

  6. I just came across this article in the Atlantic. I have been collecting th Tom and jerry sets for years and probably have found more than fifty different sets ranging from the 1870's to the 1950;s. I even have onc that says Tom and Jerry on one side of the mugs and Eggnog on the other. Thanks for the article.

  7. Yet another back pages cultural article about something that is entirely not Canadian but instead mostly about the United States. Even the readers' comments all link this previously-unheard-of beverage back to the US. The one lonely comment by Phyllis of Alberta had to clarify that Albert is in fact in Canada but didn't mention the specific town (wouldn't want to confuse or alienate the US readership).

    Surely in a country of 30+ million people spanning at least 150 years there can be a single Christmas beverage that is tied to this nation that could have been written about for this article. I would think that's why I would buy a Canadian magazine like Macleans – in the hopes that the columnists would research and write things to increase our knowledge about our own stuff. There are already dozens of US magazines that write only about US culture, I don't want to know anymore about them.

    Or am I expecting far too much?

  8. Thank you for this article!!! While I can't claim that my family has enjoyed Tom and Jerry's for five generations, I definitely know we've been drinking them for three. We're located in north-central Montana, and here we use hot water — I hadn't heard of the scalded milk variation before. Other than that, the recipes sound about the same: separate egg whites and egg yolks, beat both with sugar and spices until thick and foamy, mix them together for the batter. Pour a bit of brandy or rum (or both) into the bottom of a glass, pour in boiling water, top off with a spoon full of batter, sprinkle with nutmeg, stir and enjoy!

    There are also a number of grocery stores around here that sell pre-made batter during the holiday seasons, and bars that will make you a Tom and Jerry during that time too.

  9. I had never had Tom & Jerrys until 2 years ago.  Here in Chicago, I only know of Miller’s Pub serving them and that’s where I had them.  We have a date for Tom & Jerrys on Thursday, so i’m very much looking forward to them.