Martha Ball: Dear's Eggnog

Wed, 12/23/2015 - 11:45am

It all began with an innocent comment from Andre Boudreau — perhaps the first “innocent” comment of his life — “Ya know what’s missing during the Christmas season on Block Island? The old Town Hall Christmas parties, with the centerpiece, Violette Connolly’s ‘Martha Washington’s’ egg nog. The place was always packed... ”

It was longer ago than we care to think but still not that long ago that things should be so different. Janice Rutan was Town Clerk when the party was initiated, a thank you to everyone who served the Town in any capacity, an opportunity for employees, elected officials, members of boards and committees to come together, a little slice of goodwill on a dark December afternoon.

It was the pre-renovation Town Hall and the meeting room had a dais in front, on which sat an elegant dining room set. It was on loan from the late Nicholas DePetrillo and as was the case with all things “Nick” there was some uncertainty as to whence it came.

At the time it fit the room with louver-shuttered windows. Boards sat at that table, behind an old-fashioned wooden rail, perfect for garland draping. Beyond was a narrow gallery kitchen, and a broom closet with a mop sink.

The room was decorated with greenery, we prepared some food and made how-do-you-do-this? punch. Then people arrived in good moods with largely unanticipated plates of festive treats. 

The ante quickly upped. First Warden Ed McGovern came lugging a bag of ice, which was dumped in the mop sink to keep chilled the bottles of champagne he carried. Harbormaster Chris Littlefield brought a great sack of freshly dug littlenecks, which he shucked over the sink of that tiny kitchen.

Then, Planning Board Clerk Violette Connolly — a semi-retired New York lady, Violette who loved nothing more than a good “do” — made her entrance with a huge antique bowl and announced, “Dears, eggnog!”

She and her husband painted their home on Spring Street white, then dubbed it the White House, never mind that here the “white house” was in the New Harbor and belonged to friends of theirs! This was Martha Washington’s Recipe, never mind that Martha never lived in that other White House in Washington.

Her “proof” was the recipe, copies of which she provided every year, propped up by the bowl, probably on her own White House note paper.

Warnings they might have been. Hers was light years from out-of-a-carton, homogenized and pasteurized eggnog. It was the real thing, an elaborate out-of-time drink-it-with-a-spoon medley of whipped eggs and heavy cream, milk, sugar, and the centerpiece of the centerpiece, a staggering amount of alcohol. It was so thick she put the full bowl in the back of her old station wagon and drove from Spring Street without losing a dollop to slosh.

While everyone who encountered this nog remembers it, the closest response to my “anyone have the recipe?” was Bryan Wilson’s “Google cheat” link to (how apt!)

His characterization, “booze, booze, and more booze...oh yeah...a couple eggs” is hard to dispute; “Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery” has “only” a total quart and half cup of liquor — brandy, whiskey, rum and sherry combined — to a dozen eggs.

I was thinking a quart each of brandy and rum. I may have been stunned into exaggeration; Violette may have doubled it in anticipation of her hens producing two dozen eggs and if they did not it was simply not that important, the Washingtons would have understood, they were farmers, too!

That list of ingredients, heart-stopping in any quantity, is followed by instructions concluding with “taste frequently.” There is a modern-day caveat: “This recipe uses raw eggs, and technically the alcohol ‘cooks’ them to some degree. For health reasons, you may use an egg substitute in place of the fresh eggs.” I never think in such terms, and was surprised when a few recently offered some variation on “all that alcohol is the only reason we’re alive!”

Violette’s bowl resides at the Historical Society. It is cracked and I wonder if it was cracked all those years, but a seal of eggs and alcohol kept it intact. There must be, I think, an occasion at which we could serve the concoction but I am not sure anyone would dare today without a full liquor license.

There are all manner of answers to the question “whatever happened to those parties?” where our leader in Christmas carols was Elliot, the Cantor Taubman. There came to be so much else going on, we lost that wonderful room, government changed as the size of it increased, most of all we seem to have misplaced the feeling, the absolute guiding certainty, that we are all in this together.

Others date the demise to a decision of an unnamed-to protect-the-innocent/guilty Town Manager who decided it was not appropriate to serve alcohol in Town buildings, a policy difficult to seriously argue. 

I think anyone who knew Violette can well imagine her initially protesting that dictate with a dismissive “but, dear, it is Martha Washington’s eggnog!” adding with a grande dame huff “George served it!” Then she would invite him and his “bride” to partake at the White House.

Those Town Hall parties were not long, just a couple of hours; likely, no one would have survived longer with all the champagne and eggnog! Nor were they big and elaborate, eggnog notwithstanding!

They were crazy and multi-layered, with much of what is untold meaningless without long, complicated backstories. They were, of course, about much more than eggnog and champagne; they were about the intangible and priceless goodwill that abounds this time of year but is hard to maintain.  

This year we really must hold on to it. We need remember the bad news always grabbing the headlines represents a fraction of a percentage of what truly happens around the globe. 

Merry Christmas, everyone. Peace on Earth!