Inside The Place on Buffalo’s Lexington Avenue, it never doesn’t feel like Christmas. Walking through the front door is like stepping into your family’s living room, where happy, smiling people immediately toast a mug as soon as you sit down, hanging your coat onto the back of a barstool. Friday fish fry specials—another great Buffalo tradition—pass by leaving a trail of savory grease and vinegar. And as soon as your head swivels back around, the bartender has a hot mug of Tom and Jerry waiting for you.
Tom and Jerry, you say? You mean Buffalo named a drink after those cartoon animals who found new and inventive ways of trying to decapitate each other every day after school? Sounds like something Bills fans would do.
Well, that’s not exactly the case. The names of that rambunctious rodent and his feline frenemy share their origin with a classic Christmas cocktail that’s little known outside the upper Midwest. But take a trip to Buffalo, New York, and you’ll never look at holiday drinking the same, as this frothy, warming drink takes everything that’s great about the holidays and lets you savor it one buttery sip at a time.
A play promotion takes on a life of its own.
Its roots are—like most things before the advent of photography—highly debatable. But the generally agreed upon origin comes from British author and professional boxer Pearce Egan, who wrote a short story called,Life in London, or The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq. and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom. The story was basically about a couple of guys drunkenly carousing around London in the early 1820s. The term came to define any pair of young, mischievous men, which is how the cartoon animals got their names.
In 1823, the story was adapted into a play, which ran in London then New York City. To promote the show, Egan created a rum-and-brandy-based cocktail topped with a frothy batter of eggs, butter, and sugar, and called it the Tom and Jerry.
In 1862, bartender Jerry Thomas published a recipe for it in his book How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-vivant’s Companion, and though he claimed to be the inventor of the cocktail historians mostly disagree.
The soul-warming drink spread throughout the Midwest, and cold-weather Americans added special Tom and Jerry punch bowls and mugs to the tradition. Scour the internet and some finer thrift shops, and you can still find them.
Unlike the ubiquitous egg nogg, Tom and Jerry’s popularity is still mostly limited to the upper Midwest, primarily in dairy-loving Wisconsin and the neighborhood taverns of Western New York. And though the holiday cocktail has popped up in bars from New Orleans to San Francisco, nationwide it’s still fairly unknown.“I think it hasn’t caught on because to make it properly is a lot of work,” says The Place’s owner Jay McCarthy. “It has to be fresh on a regular basis, so because of that there’s a lot of preparation that goes into making the batter. Not everyone wants to do that.”
Making a Tom and Jerry is a labor of holiday love.
So how does one make a Tom and Jerry? The process begins with creating a special batter, made of eggs, butter, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and other proprietary ingredients that set each bar’s batter apart. You beat the eggs, sugar, and butter until they get to be about the consistency of whipped cream, then add spices. In large quantities, this can take hours. “Our cooks hate us by the end of the season,” says McCarthy.
Once the batter is ready, you mix Jamaican rum and brandy in a mug, and top it with the batter and some hot water. Sprinkle on some spices, and you’ve got a drink people from the Midwest will tell you tastes like a Hallmark movie in a cup. “They just taste so good, you wanna curl up by a fire with your book and a Tom and Jerry,” says Ellie Grenauer, co-owner of Glen Park Tavern, another of Buffalo’s Tom and Jerry hotspots. “And it’s a perfect cocktail for cold weather, it just feels like December.”
The first sip is a hot meringue with a big blast of Christmas spices, followed by a boozy afterburn that settles onto the pillow of sweet dairy. As the warm drink works its way through your body chilled by the winter winds off Lake Erie, the spirit of Christmas fills you. And even before the alcohol buzz hits your brain, you feel relaxed and at home. The feeling you get going home for the holidays, where everything is warm and loving and just like the good old days, comes in every mug of Tom and Jerry.
A seasonal drink that’s truly seasonal.
Another reason the Tom and Jerry is such a cult obsession is that unlike the pumpkin spice latte—which now tells us fall starts in August—the Tom and Jerry is only available during the holidays. And even in Buffalo, where snow in May isn’t the least bit unusual, you can only find it from about November through January. “We start around Thanksgiving week, because by then people are just clamoring for it,” says McCarthy. “But when you get into late January and early February, and it’s still sub-zero temps and no one orders one for a day, we stop.”
And just like that, the holidays are over. And the city spends the rest of the year waiting for Tom and Jerry to come carousing around again.
How to eat wings in Buffalo
If you’re headed to the City of Good Neighbors to try a Tom and Jerry, you’re probably also going to try Buffalo wings in the city where they were invented. And if you’re going to do that, you should probably know where they came from, and how to eat them.
Buffalo wings were invented at Anchor Bar in downtown Buffalo in 1964. As legend has it, Dominic Bellissimo was tending bar at his family’s restaurant late one night when a group of his friends came in. Looking to give them something to soak up the alcohol, he asked his mother Teressa—who was working in the kitchen—to make something. She looked around the kitchen, found some wings she was saving for soup, and threw them in the deep fryer. She then tossed them in some cayenne pepper sauce, served them with bleu cheese and celery to cool the heat, and an American culinary tradition was born. You can still get them at the original Anchor Bar, though locals will tell you Duff’s, Gabriel’s Gate, and Bar-Bill are better.
One heads up though: Because wings were invented with bleu cheese, ordering ranch with wings is a big no-no in Nickel City. Seriously. Buffalonians will look at you like you just insulted Josh Allen if you even suggest getting a side of ranch, a food faux pas up there with getting ketchup on a hotdog in Chicago or ordering any steak well done. Consider yourself warned.
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