Thursday, December 21, 2006
Prohibition-Era America Longs for Tom and Jerry at Christmastime
By ROGER M. GRACE
Damon Runyon’s character “Broadway” speaks of Tom and Jerry longingly in “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” a short story which first appeared on Dec 31 1932, in Collier’s. This was, you’ll note, during Prohibition. Broadway pontificates:
This hot Tom and Jerry is an old time drink that is once used by one and all in this country to celebrate Christmas with, and in fact it is once so popular that many people think Christmas is invented only to furnish an excuse for hot Tom and Jerry, although of course this is by no means true.
But anybody will tell you that there is nothing that brings out the true holiday spirit like hot Tom and Jerry, and I hear that since Tom and Jerry goes out of style in the United States, the holiday spirit is never quite the same.
The reason hot Tom and Jerry goes out of style is because it is necessary to use rum and one thing and another in making Tom and Jerry, and naturally when rum becomes illegal in this country Tom and Jerry is also against the law, because rum is something that is very hard to get around town these days.
For a while some people try making Tom and Jerry without putting rum in it, but somehow it never has the same old holiday spirit, so nearly everybody finally gives up in disgust….
A column appearing New Year’s Day, 1926, in the Oakland Tribune took the form of, well, sort of a fantasy. A group of regulars enter the diner of Jimmy Flaherty. “Many a time in the old days,” the unbylined columnist tells us, “Jimmy had watched this bunch of men and many of the others…come trooping in through that same weather-cracked, brown, swinging door to partake of the hot Tom and Jerry resting in the big bowl on the bar served on the eve before another year had started.”
A customer named Soapy says:
“[N]uthin’ is goin’ to take away the memory of them Tom and Jerrys wot Jimmy uster ladle out to us from that ol’ white crockery bowl of his. By th’ way, Jimmy, wot has happened to that bowl? I’d sure like to jist look at it fer old time’s sake.”
The yarn continues:
“Well, here it is,’ responded Jimmy, grinning. He bent behind the bar and when he came up there was the old bowl. And wonder of wonders! It was filled to the brim with a frothy, steaming liquid from whose surface emanated the pungent smell of hot Tom and Jerry.
“Here you are, gents. Grab hold of the nutmeg shakers while I ladle it out just like in the old days.”
The gang gazed too dumbfounded to speak.
“Wh-where did ye git it, Jimmy” asked Bill the Stevedore, breaking the silence which had followed the appearance of the bowl on the bar.
“I ran into a couple of bottles of the old stuff when I was clearing out one of my back lockers,” laughed Jimmy. “And I thought what a fine joke it would be to spring a real honest-to-goodness Tom and Jerry on you boys when you come into the place tonight. Just something to remember the old days with and something to send out the old year. So just grab your mugs and gather ’round while I fill them up. This is on the house. And what the prohis don’t know won’t hurt them none.”
Then followed the slosh as each mug was filled.
“Well, here’s to a happy New Year,” announced Bill. The rest swallowed theirs to the smacking of lips.
“Many an old-timer is recalling the bowl of Tom and Jerry that used to appear in the center of the bar at the corner saloon, along about this time of year, back yonder before Volstead became famous,” a Jan. 3, 1924 editorial in the Modesto Evening News began, continuing:
That bowl of Tom and Jerry was as symbolic as the holly wreath and the Santa Claus ringing a bell at the curb. It arrived shortly before Christmas and seemed always to be filled, though it was emptied many times before New Year.
Won’t be many more years until no one will be able to remember the recipe for Tom and Jerry. Customers in the old days had a hazy notion that it was concocted from white of egg, nutmeg, cinnamon, frosting sugar and the fluid that is scheduled to become as scarce as radium or hen’s teeth.
Now and then some one tries to tell us there’s as much drinking as ever. But we don’t notice any Tom and Jerry lurking in the background.
Actually, Tom and Jerry is made with both beaten yolks (mixed with sugar) and beaten whites of eggs, folded together. Water, brought to the boiling point, is poured on the batter—but the fluid that was “scarce” was rum and brandy or, as my wife’s parents sometimes made it, with just brandy. I first encountered the drink in 1965 at their home in Garden Grove when I was courting their daughter, and sampled it there in subsequent winters—but I can’t recall encountering this once-traditional holiday season drink beverage elsewhere.
But popular it was before Prohibition…it was a source of nostalgia during Prohibition…and it was a trendy society drink at holiday parties for a decade or so after Prohibition.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company
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