The first Tom and Jerry that Jessie Wheeler ever sipped was at Austin Nichols' holiday party. She tips her head of curly gray hair, streaked with purple, to recall the first taste she'd had from a grown-up's mug. She was just tall enough to see over the table where the adults picked up a heated cup at one end, adding milk and sweet batter as they moved to the other end, where Nichols was ladling out the rum. "Oh, my God, it was such an exotic taste," she says of the drink, which goes back to the 1800s and has classically apocryphal origin stories and infinite versions. "But I think it was the whole atmosphere," she says with a grin.
Every Christmas, Wheeler recalls, Nichols would hang a sign on the fence of the house he shared with his wife, Mertyl, inviting the whole town of Bridgeville in. They lived on the only patch of property in town that Wheeler's grandfather didn't own. As she'd heard it told, Nichols had come back from World War I looking for a peaceful place to settle down. He worked as a timber boss for a logging company and spent many a day off at the post office, where he always had his own chair and a story to tell. As a kid, she remembers him in his 60s or 70s, a tall man with a slight paunch, smoking a curved pipe.
The index card that bears Nichols' recipe for Tom and Jerry cocktails — the very ones Wheeler believes he dished out at the long-gone Forest Glen Lodge — is lined with his delicate, measured handwriting that puts most of our contemporary scribbles to shame. In his pre-electricity method, the cups were heated in a pot of hot water over a wood-burning stove. Beat the egg whites until "real stiff." Beat the yolks in "like mad and beat some more." His directions are clear but imprecise: How much batter or rum? "Some." And while it's not a full endorsement, he ends with the note, "Nick uses half real milk and half can milk, this makes it richer." You're just going to have to taste it and see.
It makes sense. Wheeler, who acts as an unofficial historian for Bridgeville (local author and historian Jerry Rohde referred me back to her when asked about background for this story), says every family in town had its own recipes, some loaded with enough spices to make Starbucks blink, others simple and milky. Carl Nova's grandmother's recipe dates back to the early 1900s, but Wheeler doubts her old beau would have dared serve it to Nichols, whom he revered. Nova's mother was from "the end of the world as we know it," says Wheeler, "Turlock, California." A ranger for the California Department of Forestry, now known as Cal Fire, he'd come to Bridgeville in 1965 to help restore the fire station damaged by the 1964 flood. That was back when, according to Wheeler, "the uniforms were better looking."
Nova, too, as Wheeler tells it, had a penchant for stories — no doubt enhanced by the Tom and Jerry batter he whipped up for company. Nova, who passed away in 2002, leaves us, in wobbly felt-tip pen, a recipe for a smaller crowd and a little more guidance on the hooch and the amount of batter per cup. Absent vanilla, it's all about the richness of the yolk and hot milk. Like Nichols' cocktail, it's a comforting, nostalgic treat with or without the booze. Just the thing for sitting around and telling stories.
Austin Nichols' Tom and Jerry
8 eggs, separated
2 pounds powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 quart milk
1 quart water
Rum, to taste
Beat the egg yolks until thick and set aside. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly mix the powdered sugar into the egg whites until incorporated. Add the beaten yolks and beat the mixture well. Add the vanilla and baking soda and mix well.
In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the water and milk over medium high heat but do not boil. Meanwhile, warm mugs in hot water.
Pour a shot or two of rum into each mug and add 1-3 tablespoons of batter. Stir well. Fill the rest of the way with the hot milk and water and mix. Sprinkle with cinnamon and/or nutmeg and serve.
Nova Family Tom and Jerry
Serves about 6.
3 eggs, separated
1 pound powdered sugar
1 quart milk
Brandy or rum
In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. In a separate bowl, beat the yolks until thick and light yellow. Stir yolks into the whites and gradually beat the powdered sugar into the egg mixture.
Heat the mugs in a pot of water. Add 1/2 jigger or 3/4 ounce of rum or brandy to each mug. Mix in a heaping tablespoon of batter and stir. Fill the mug the rest of the way with hot milk and stir well. Sprinkle with nutmeg and serve.