Interview

Alton Brown Digs Into the Origins of Iconic Holiday Eats: Fruitcake, Nutmeg, ‘Nog

The "Good Eats" host schools us on nutmeg's enduring presence in holiday cuisine, explains why we should be aging our eggnog, and tells us why not all fruitcakes are created (horribly) equal.

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For over a decade, Alton Brown’s Peabody-winning show “Good Eats” took us down fascinating wormholes in the food universe, weaving in science and history and humor and saving us from overly precious foodie-ism.

He’s presided over “Kitchen Stadium,” on “Iron Chef America,” AND he’s stormed stages around the country with his new culinary variety show “Eat Your Science.”

He’s also just taken his new cookbook “Every Day Cook” out of the oven. It’s got recipes for everything from Cider House Fondue to “lacquered bacon.” We dive right into what that exactly is, Yuletide spices, and much more below. (Be sure to check out his etiquette advice here, too.)

Interview highlights:

On his curious recipe for lacquered bacon and whether bacon’s moment is over

Alton Brown: Basically what I do is I cook bacon in such a way that it basically gets a hard but very, very thin candy coating. So it reminds me of a lacquered piece of furniture. So it’s a perfect balance between a candy and smoked pork products.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, God bless you.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But at risk of blasphemy, are we not at peak bacon?

Alton Brown: You know, I can walk away now. I mean, I think that I needed to kind of have the last word. And this is my last word. I’m done. This is drop pig, walk out. I’m done.

On why certain spices, like nutmeg, seem particularly Christmassy

Alton Brown: Well, when it comes to spices, nobody gives a crap about seasons when it comes to spices. Most spices are grown and harvested on the other side of the planet and they take a very, very long time to get where they’re going.

But the reason that Christmas taste the way — actually, the holidays — taste the way that they do is because there was a time when only rich people had spices. And, it was a way for them to show off their wealth, to gift their wealth, in a variety of either baked goods or liquid goods, eggnog being one of those. And we just kind of took that on.

Nutmeg whole and grated on wooden background, selective focus
Nutmeg whole and grated. (Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

So, as spices became more and more available, more and more people picked that up because it was something that rich people did. So now that is why we have that association.

But also, it kind of does make sense because these are generally what are referred to as warming spices. They tend to make you feel warmer on the inside. Of course, there are some actual chemical reasons for that, especially with nutmeg, which has myristicin, which is also in ecstasy.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, nice!

Alton Brown: So it tends to make for– well, you gotta take a lot of it, though, to like, Charlie Parker amounts, which is what he used to do.

Rico Gagliano: Oh! We can all drink a lot of pumpkin spice lattes and get that.

Alton Brown: You know, but that’s not the thing. That wouldn’t get you nearly enough. You would have to probably drink an entire tanker truck of spice lattes to do that. But that’s why we have that association.

On why fruitcakes tend to be so bad

Alton Brown: Well, not all fruitcakes are bad. The problem is that several of them are bad [laughs]. For instance, if you go to my website, you can look up my Free Range Fruitcake, which I think is absolutely delicious. Yes, it’s full of fruit, but not the kind of sick, candied, radioactive-colored fruit that some people really, really like.

Christmas fruitcake with sugar icing and candied fruits. (Photo Credit: Thinkstock)
Christmas fruitcake with sugar icing and candied fruits. (Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

I live in Georgia, and there’s a famous fruitcake — should be infamous — from the town of Claxton. And this is one of those cakes that is so dense that it’s actually not a cake anymore. It’s moved into the realm of candy product and has colors in it that don’t appear anywhere in nature. I mean, anywhere. Maybe, maybe in a known galaxy.

But there are a few people that like them. And because of that, these things are manufactured and shipped out all around the country. And there aren’t as many as we think. There’s only 13 of them, actual fruitcakes. They’re just shuttled around and re-gifted so often that we think there’s a lot more of them. But because of that, fruitcake got a very, very bad reputation.

It actually comes from a form of pudding, a steamed or boiled cake that is English in origin. It was actually really, really delicious: calorie dense, also full of spices, typically a good deal of nut and fruit because it’s supposed to be a symbol of the harvest, the kind of wealth spread of the harvest.

But it can be delicious, and actually should be delicious. Especially when you soak it in enough cognac or brandy to knock a Cape buffalo on its ass. So there [are] powerful reasons for eating this stuff when it’s good.

My fruitcake is different because, number one, I use dried fruit that I then rehydrate in liquor. Bourbon and cognac primarily. But also, I pay a lot of attention to the actual flavor and texture of the cake. Which is more like, almost like a banana bread kind of flavor. It’s got whole wheat flour in it, so it’s darker. And I think it’s pretty delicious.

One reason eggnog became a holiday thing in America: rum

Rico Gagliano: Like, why? Eggs in a glass with booze. How did this become a holiday thing? It’s like an omelet in a glass before you cook it.

Alton Brown: Well first off, why not? And no, it’s not like an omelet in a glass. It’s like melted ice cream in a glass, actually. This is a food that actually descends, again, from Britain. Something called posset — a very thick, actually curdled milk and booze with, again, a lot of spices. We’re hitting the spice notes again because eggnog is almost defined by the presence of nutmeg.

Homemade Festive Cinnamon Eggnog for the Holidays
Cinnamon Eggnog. (Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

But the reason it’s called nog, at least we think, is because nog used to be a very, very kind of strong beer. English beer. And it was drunk out of a cup called a noggin. So we think that happened. But the reason that it’s become the drink that it has in America is that early Americans had three things going for them. One was milk. We had a lot of milk because we had a lot of cows. Two: eggs. And by the way, you’ve gotta have it — it’s actually more dairy than eggs. A lot of people had chickens or access to chickens. Three: rum.

People don’t realize that colonial America was pretty much saturated with rum. It was more common than clean water by a long shot. A lot more popular than beer. And drunk by everyone, including schoolchildren.

So putting those three things together: one, tastes awesome; two, can actually preserve the nutrients in both the eggs and the milk. I make most of my eggnog in June or July for the Christmas season. So I actually refrigerate it and store it and allow it to age for months. And I know a few people that won’t crack open an eggnog until it’s aged for two years.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And what does that do? By aging it. How does it enhance the experience of drinking it?

Alton Brown: Well, it enhances the experience because, believe it or not, the enzymes and the proteins in both eggs and milk, and some of the fat even, kind of mingles up with the ethanol, the alcohol concerned, as well as some of the other chemicals, and they kind of party.

And, over a series of time, can create new compounds. So it’s far more complex once it’s been allowed to age for a while. It’s a very, very different drink when it’s aged.