Real Hot Buttered Rum from David Wondrich
2 oz Good, Dark Jamaican-style Rum
1 tsp Raw Sugar
3+ oz Boiling Water
Rinse an earthenware mug with boiling water
Pour in an ounce or so of boiling water and stir to dissolve sugar
Add rum, another 2 oz of boiling water, and a hazelnut-sized knob of butter
Grate nutmeg over the top
* * *
You know that I love you with all of my heart, but there’s something that’s been bothering me these past two decades. For almost twenty years, I’ve held my tongue and been the dutiful husband, but with the boy now at an age where these thing start to matter, I feel that I must speak my peace. I’ve also chosen to address this in a public forum, because I value the input of others on such matters. This isn’t something that affects just our family – no, I suspect the problem to be of almost epidemic proportions. So, here it is – straight and simple: Christmas dinner should be celebrated on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. That’s just the way it is.
Your Loving Husband
All joking aside, after nearly twenty years together, the above subject is still something the Mrs. and I openly debate. I grew up with the tradition of Christmas dinner being on the night of the 24th, and after dinner, the kids got to open one present. On the 25th, we’d complete the present-opening, enjoy a lunch of leftovers, and the whole family would go out to a movie. Lesley’s family tradition is different – with no real celebration on the 24th and presents, cooking, and dining all crammed in on Christmas Day itself. Even the food is different. My meatballs and lefse to her roast beef and pop-overs. At least, we agree (for better or worse) on the Jell-O mold. Now, when we had two Christmases to attend – the juggling act of all young couples – this was ideal, mostly because we were always the guests, so there was little work to do beyond hopping in the car and helping with the dishes.
Over the years, things have changed. All of our remaining family is local, and the two celebrations have merged into one: the one on Christmas Day. Lesley won this privilege in part because she does most of the Christmas cooking (my skills seem to go dormant in the winter months) and, in another part, because her mother lives with us. I was simply out-numbered. But now, with the boy as a loyal minion, I’m feeling like it might be time to push back a little and reclaim Christmas Eve.
It seems that it’s when kids come into the picture that we start to shore up our traditions. I have more gentile friends who have married seemingly non-religious Jewish women and become almost Orthodox in their faith the minute the first child rears its head. We’ve certainly done this too, wanting to instill in the boy some sense of family tradition and consistency – he has his own tree for which he gets an ornament each year and, beginning this season, we’re asking him to donate a handful of old toys to make room for the new ones. He’s also of the age where he can start performing certain kitchen chores with aplomb. Mixing and cookie-cutting are on his resume. The common thread – which I’ve found only as I write this – is that we hope to instill in him more tradition and ritual than presents and “stuff”.
All of this is leading up to, of course, today’s drink, graciously provided by the inimitable David Wondrich, James Beard award-winning author of Imbibe! and Punch as well as contributing editor to Saveur and drinks writer for Esquire and too many other publications to list. If you’re a regular 12BB reader, you’ve no doubt seen David’s virtues extolled here before; I did a quick search and discovered that he’s been mentioned in 16% of our articles since launch.
What we appreciate most about David – both in his writing and his drink making – is his Ockham’s razor-like pragmatism. I can’t say that he’s never a man for the baroque; it just isn’t the central tenet to his way of thinking. This is particularly true in today’s drink, which distills several generations of multi-national culturalism down into something wholly the product of American efficiency:
My father was born in Trieste, Italy, to a Sicilian father and an Austrian mother. My mother was born in Massachusetts. Her mother was DAR-American from Norway, Maine and her father was Welsh, but born in Matamoros, Mexico and raised in Arizona after his family was chased there by Pancho Villa. My wife is Irish-Luxembourger-German, via pre-Hollywood Los Angeles, Wisconsin and various spots on the frontier. So holiday traditions? How do you choose? Do I give my Christmas cheer a rocket-assisted take-off with granita di caffe con panna (a childhood favorite)? With hot, spiced wine? Rompope? A good, Midwestern Tom & Jerry? I suppose if I were clever I would make up some unholy blend that nods to each of those traditions. But that just sounds like work, and who wants to work during the holidays? Instead, I apply rule 17: given a choice of drinks, always go with the strongest and simplest. In this case, that means my other childhood favorite, hot buttered rum. Maine in da Hizzouse (as they’ve never said back in ol’ Norway)! Nothing simpler or more warming. And boy, howdy do these get your cheer off the ground.
Note: resist the impulses to make a butter-sugar-spice batter or use cider rather than water. In Maine, that would mark you as a Communist. Do not resist the impulse to add all the water in cold along with the rum and sugar and heat the whole shebang up by thrusting a glowing-hot fireplace poker into it.
We’ve covered the batter-based version of Hot Buttered Rum in the past, but there’s an elegant, New England (once a great rum producer) simplicity here. You get exactly what is advertised – nothing more, nothing less – and everyone’s all that much better for it. This version returns HBR to its toddy roots – spirit, sugar, water – with the butter serving as the most delicious garnish (oh, it’s much more than that I know) imaginable. Wondrich told Liquor.com that he’s the kind of guy who likes his drinks “simple, square-jawed and, well, boozy”, and this certainly fits that bill. The butter obviously propels the drink in a direction foreign to a traditional whisky toddy or skin, but — butter aside — the drink as a whole is terribly dependent upon your choice of rum. There’s no hiding behind a batter. Again, you’re getting what you pay for.
As Americans, we’re particularly good at taking what came before and whittling it into something we can call our own. We certainly did that with the cocktail. Santa Claus too is an American invention – one which, in his modern incarnation, scarcely dates back 200 years. Ever efficient and looking for a new, unique spin on the European traditions of Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Sinterklass, author Clement Clarke Moore borrowed liberally from what had come before to create the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823), which established several key attributes about the Santa that we know and love today: Santa’s jolliness, his arriving on Christmas Eve, flying through the air with reindeer, the names of the reindeer, and the way in which Santa slides down the chimney. Of course, we know the poem better as “The Night Before Christmas”.
As the mutts of the world, it’s important that we Americans establish our own traditions, especially on a personal level, and what David Wondrich so perfectly illuminates with today’s drink is that the tradition you establish doesn’t have to be everything to everyone – it just has to mean something to you. Whether you like your holidays “simple and square-jawed” or bombastic and over-the-top, only one thing is ultimately important: Lesley, we’re moving dinner back to Christmas Eve.
Esoterica: If two dots do indeed make a line, then this – our second Wondrich drink to feature a Playmobil figure – must be establishing a new tradition for us.