The Keeper of the Nog

The Keeper of the Nog

The Keeper of the Nog

My great Aunt Rose's annual Christmas Eve party was always a hit. Of all the celebrations on our extended family's Baton Rouge holiday circuit, it was the one fête that consistently achieved that perfect balance of chaos and civility. It was the delicate equilibrium of holiday fancy dress and everyday informality. It was a gathering where adults felt comfortable in rapt conversation while packs of sugar-charged kids rocketed through the house, always seconds away from shattering shelves of porcelain bric-a-brac. For one night every year, Aunt Rose transformed her proper home into a very civilized seasonal circus -- complete with long-suffering poodles, a burbling yellow lava lamp, and polished silver containers on every horizontal surface. Always the gracious hostess, Aunt Rose (the patron saint of other people's kids) presided over the crowd with a relaxed smile and a new-from-the-beauty shop coif.

The whole affair was powered by her ethereal eggnog, the feather-light concoction that was ladled from an elaborate silver punch bowl into matching cups. Like the party itself, Rose's eggnog was a study in holiday paradox. In texture, it was midway between a fluffy chocolate mousse and liquid custard. The velvety mixture of eggs, heavy cream, extra-fine sugar, and bourbon was simultaneously light as a cloud and mind-bendingly rich. Kids inhaled the nog because it closely resembled quaffable cake batter -- sweet with vanilla and a hint of nutmeg. Adults did the indulgence one better by innocently reaching for the nearby cream pitcher which was conveniently topped up with Jack Daniel's on party night. "Just a little extra Christmas cheer" they'd say of their newly flammable treat.

On any other day, Aunt Rose was everybody's favorite relative. In her youth, she was the brash bad girl who could find good-natured trouble effortlessly. As my grandfather's sister, Rose had spent most of her life acting as confidante, guardian, and pan-generational friend to my mother and her seven siblings. Perfectly pear-shaped and welcoming, Aunt Rose knew that her role as aunt afforded her a special set of privileges and her own set of rules. When Barbara or Maurine had school or boy problems, Rose was the perfect sounding board -- nonjudgmental and wise without being preachy. She could volunteer to accompany Lula on a cross-country midwinter drive from Louisiana to Virginia. She was trusted by all and gently wielded an extra-parental authority that didn't take itself too seriously. Aunt Rose was our family's critical middle ground -- the comforting and forgiving connector between parents and children.

Later in life, she kept her edge and constantly smelled of perfume and residual Winston smoke. In her tiny house, she tended her three jittery poodles (Mim, Bay, and Petite Chou) and developed a talent for spoiling other people's kids. Her kitchen cabinets always held stashes of forbidden fruit (chocolate milk, Pop Rouge, Eagle Brand condensed milk) and she could sidestep our parent's dietary taboos with a wave of her hand. On every trip to Baton Rouge, we'd stop in for a visit, and Mama and Rose would talk endlessly over coffee. "Carmelite," she'd say in between poodle yaps, "always keep your life on a cash basis."

For some reason, our family always arrived early to Rose's Christmas party to help with the preparations. While Rose busied herself with pans of buttered pecans, I'd watch my mother and her sister Madeline crack and painstakinly separate dozens of eggs for the upcoming nog. The egg whites went into the MixMaster until they turned to weightless foam, then the yolks went in with sugar "until it all looks lemony." A generous slug of bourbon helped to "cook the yolks a bit," and then the delicate hand-folding process began. My mother would take a little bit of the fluffy egg foam and gently blend it into the bright yellow mix of liquor and yolk. A little more, and the mixture started to inflate and smell like Christmas. A few more turns of the spatula, and it was ready to go -- into the shiny punch bowl, with spoons for the truly dainty.

A few hours later, everyone was back in full holiday attire and the party was in full swing. And as usual, everybody felt perfectly at home despite the confines of the dreaded church clothes. Rose's tree twinkled next to the ever-present lava lamp, and her elaborately wrapped presents reflected the amorphous light. Rose's girls would flit around checking the ham, rinsing the cups, and corralling the kids as the need arose. And above it all, Aunt Rose would smile -- the happy ringleader of her chaotic Christmas circus.

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