We here at the Heavy Table got a plaintive letter from Las Vegas earlier this month. A pair of Minnesota expatriates had a Christmas crisis on their hands: “We have to tell you that we have searched high and low and have not been able to find anything even close to the Tom and Jerry batter we both so fondly remember. Most people here don’t even know what a Tom and Jerry is!”
Indeed! Will there even be snow in Las Vegas this Christmas? Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
Meanwhile, in Duluth, another scary scenario was playing out: Duluthians, partisans of their own Connolly’s brand of Tom and Jerry batter (see our story on Connolly’s, here), were unable to find it on the shelves. Readers of the local blog A Perfect Duluth Day started trading news of sightings. And then, the bad news came: Upper Lakes Foods was unable to find a manufacturer for the batter this season. They’re hoping to line someone up next year. So, no Connolly’s for anyone, whether in Vegas or here.
The Heavy Table team decided to step in. While we couldn’t include the beloved Connolly’s in a taste test, we could at least help Roy and Kathy in Las Vegas and all the people of Duluth find the best replacement. We decided to test the two most common brands of batter, in the Twin Cities at least, against a couple of homemade recipes.
First, some background. If you didn’t grow up in Minnesota or Wisconsin, you’ve probably completely given up by now on trying to figure out why anyone wants to make batter out of a cocky cartoon cat and his cheeky mouse nemesis. If you are from this area and your family did any entertaining at all around the holidays, then you’re also wondering what the fuss is about: Doesn’t everybody already agree that your dad’s recipe / favorite store-bought brand is the best?
A Tom and Jerry, in the drinking sense, has nothing to do with cats and mice. It is, according to the Dictionary of International Food and Cooking Terms (Myra Waldo, 1967), “a hot frothy alcoholic drink made with beaten egg yolks, stiffly beaten egg whites, rum, sugar, boiling water, bourbon, and spices, served in mugs with a sprinkling of nutmeg.” Most modern aficionados replace the water with milk and the bourbon with brandy.
Online sources, from Wikipedia to Esquire, all seem to agree that the Tom and Jerry was created as a publicity stunt in the 1820s by the English writer Pierce Egan, to promote his book Life in London, and was named after the main characters. The drink was once common enough across the country that vintage “Tom and Jerry” bowl and mug sets are common finds in antique shops and on eBay — and in Minnesota grandmothers’ china cupboards.
But one mystery we couldn’t solve was why Minnesota and Wisconsin seem to have made the Tom and Jerry their own while it has faded into obscurity in the rest of the country. Yes, it is cold here around Christmas time, but it’s cold in New England, too. Any theories are welcome.
On to the tasting. We tasted Flaherty’s and Mrs. Bowen’s brand batters, both easy to find in grocery stores and liquor stores, against a rather simplified homemade recipe, one that involves mixing the entire drink on the stovetop, rather than making a batter to be mixed with liquor, and also included the rather untraditional butter in the ingredients.
I’ll cut to the chase: Mrs. Bowen’s was the best of the bunch. Flaherty’s, although it listed eggs as the first ingredient, lacked any eggy flavor. It was all milky sweetness, and rather too much of each. The homemade drink, on the other hand, wasn’t quite sweet enough. It was richer, thanks to the butter, and had a nice thick texture, but it lacked the depth that additional spices might have added.
Mrs. Bowen’s had a more balanced flavor, just sweet enough, and it held its foam nicely. It wasn’t, however, the ideal Tom and Jerry for the Minnesotans among us (who admitted that they had grown up with the “one in the red container,” i.e., Flaherty’s). And it wasn’t something that the non-Minnesotans were eager to adopt as a new holiday tradition.
So we dug back into the Heavy Table archives and found a piece from last year on the beloved, elusive Connolly’s. It included ingredients for an updated Tom and Jerry (and Audrey) as featured on the fun and plucky TheDairyShow.com. Find the full recipe here.
And there it was, right in front of our noses the whole time. A drink Minnesotans and transplants could all get behind. The foam floating on top of the thickish bottom layer was just right. The additional spices gave it a fuller flavor, the bitters a little bit of depth. And the addition of cognac in place of brandy gave it a little more Happy New Year! So, merry Christmas to you, Roy and Kathy in Las Vegas. And to you, bereaved citizens of Duluth. Christmas just got a little brighter.
And, for those of you who need a little alone time with a great cocktail to make it through the tail end of the holiday season, here’s a simplified single-serving adaptation.
Tom and Jerry for One
1 egg, separated
2 tbsp powdered sugar
1 oz rum
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of cardamom
¼ cup hot milk
¼ oz brandy
freshly grated nutmeg
Warm a mug with hot water. Beat the yolk with the sugar and spices until thick. Stir in rum. Beat the egg whites until very stiff. Fold the whites into the yolks. Pour into heated mug and gently stir in milk and brandy. Top with freshly grated nutmeg.