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A Brief History of Eggnog

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Eggnog can trace its roots back as far as the 14th century, when medieval Englishmen enjoyed a hot cocktail known as posset. Posset didn’t contain eggs – the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a drink made of hot milk curdled with ale, wine, or the like, often sweetened and spiced" – but over the years eggs joined in on the festive fun.

While the egg-laden version of posset was popular with the English, it became less common as time went by. Milk and eggs were both scarce and expensive, and the sherry and Madeira used to spike the mixture was pricey, too. Over time, the concoction became a drink that only aristocrats could really afford.

All of that changed in the American colonies, though. What we lacked in parliamentary representation we made up for in easy access to dairy products and liquor.

Since many Americans had their own chickens and dairy cattle, tossing together a glass of eggnog was no problem, and the drink’s popularity soared among the colonists even as it sagged back home.

This disparity in the drink’s popularity on either side of the pond endures to this day; eggnog’s popularity in the U.K. still lags far behind its holiday ubiquity here in the States. In fact, here’s how the Guardian’s Andrew Shanahan memorably described the drink in 2006: “People rarely get it right, but even if you do it still tastes horrible. The smell is like an omelette and the consistency defies belief. It lurches around the glass like partially-sentient sludge.” Appetizing!

Using Your Noggin

The word “eggnog” itself has fairly murky origins, but many etymologists think the name stems from the word “noggin,” which referred to small wooden mugs that were often used to serve this type of drink. Others propose a similar story but explain that the “nog” comes from the Norfolk slang nog to refer to the strong ales that were often served in these cups. Still others think the name is a contraction of colonial Americans’ request to bartenders for an “egg-and-grog” when they wanted a glass.

Furthermore, while the drink itself may date back to medieval times, the word “eggnog” is a relatively recent invention. The first recorded instances of the use of “eggnog” only date back to the late 18th century, and by that time, bartenders in the young United States had already tweaked the recipe to give it a more American twist. The Madeira and sherry that English aristocrats had used for their version of eggnog were scarce on this side of the pond, but we had plenty of rum and whiskey. In 1800, author Isaac Weld, Jr. described the American recipe for eggnog as consisting of “new milk, eggs, rum, and sugar, beat up together.”

Have One for George Washington

Yes, early Americans loved their eggnog, and you can use this fact to your advantage if you down a few too many glasses this year. Simply point out that you’re in good company with the likes of George Washington. Kitchen records from Mount Vernon indicate that Washington served an eggnog-like drink to visitors, and since the general wasn’t strapped for cash, he didn’t skimp on the sauce. Washington’s potent recipe included three different types of booze: rye whiskey, rum, and sherry. Nobody could tell a lie after having a few cups of that.

Not everyone had Washington’s funds, though. A thorough look at historical recipes reveals that for most tipplers, the type of booze they snuck into their nog didn’t really matter as long as there was something to give it a little kick. In addition to rum, ale, whiskey, and wines, an 1879 collection of recipes from Virginia housewives features a recipe that calls for 12 eggs, eight wine-glassfuls of brandy, and four wine-glassfuls of wine. Another calls for three dozen eggs, half a gallon of domestic brandy, and another half-pint of French brandy. Something’s telling us these shindigs got a little wild.

You Might Not Want to Read the Label

If you pick up a carton of commercial eggnog at the supermarket, you’re probably getting much more nog than egg. FDA regulations only require that 1.0 percent of a product’s final weight be made up of egg yolk solids for it to bear the eggnog name. For “eggnog flavored milk,” the bar is even lower; in addition to requiring less butterfat in the recipe, this label only requires 0.5 percent egg yolk solids in the carton.

Of course, there are other good reasons why we don’t tip back eggnog year-round. Sure, nobody’s reaching for a nice cup of something custardy on a hot day, but it’s not very good for you at all. A relatively small four-ounce cup of store-bought eggnog boasts a whopping 170 calories (half of them from fat), nearly 10 grams of fat, and over 70 mg of cholesterol. (If you’re keeping score at home, that’s around a quarter of your recommended daily intake of cholesterol.)

If you choose to eschew these commercial brands in favor of mixing up your own eggnog, you’ll probably want to use pasteurized eggs to suppress the risk of a nasty case of salmonella; not even a playlist featuring “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” ruins a holiday party quite as quickly as making everyone in attendance violently ill. Don’t use unpasteurized eggs under the old argument of “the booze will kill the germs,” either. The FDA advises that this strategy isn’t likely to work.

An Unhealthy Obsession

Nutritional info aside, eggnog still has a strong following among holiday drinkers. It’s hard to top the devotion shared by a Virginia father and son in the late 19th century, though. In 1900, Good Housekeeping ran a story about the Christmas-morning eggnog traditions of Virginia, and it included this anecdote:

“So religiously is this custom of the eggnog drinking observed that Judge Garnett of Mathews County tells a story of rushing in on Christmas morning to warn his father that the house was on fire. The old gentleman first led his son to the breakfast table and ladled out his glass of eggnog, drank one with him, then went to care for the burning building.”

True or not, the story certainly underscores the downright magical powers of eggnog. Nobody’s braving a burning building to have a cup of fruit punch or spiced cider.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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