I’ve started to think that the true song of the holidays isn’t “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night.” It’s the theme from “Jaws.”
It starts in November, the ominous motif (duh nuh) not yet recognized, as I think vaguely about cards and gifts, and fantasize that this year we might just skip the craziness and spend the week in Mexico. Around early December (duh nuh) comes the realization that I’m behind in my shopping (duh nuh). I stay late at the office and work weekends (duh nuh) so that just maybe, I’ll get enough done to take a real break at the holidays.
Then duh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh NUH NUH NUH, it’s upon us. It cannot be escaped. It’s too late for Mexico. Instead, it’s trips to the mall to get screamed at over parking spaces, busting our gift budget, frantically searching for presents that never seem adequate to sentiment. The cards will never arrive by Christmas. Nothing is finished; the house is a wreck. The only wrapping paper we have is pirate-themed. The dog has eaten tinsel and is pooping silver in the back yard, and suddenly I am living a “Cathy” cartoon.
Every year, I swear it’ll be better. I’ll start earlier. I’ll hand-make gifts, hang a wreath on the door, gather with loved ones to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Die Hard,” the way the baby Jesus would want.
Every year I fail, and my fantasy of Christmas in Mexico returns. My parents lived there before I was born, and there is a little island, part fishing village, part beach town, off the coast of Cancun that we visited as kids and that my husband and I occasionally go back to. Being there — the clear beauty of the water, the sense of breathing deeper — reminds me of how I felt as a child at candlelit Mass on Christmas Eve: All is calm. All is bright.
Particularly, I’ve long wanted to be there for Los Posadas, celebrations in the nine days leading up to Christmas, where people reenact the holy family’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. Even if you’re immune to Christian iconography, if you’re remotely aware of the terrible violence that parts of Mexico have been experiencing over the past decade, it’s hard not to be moved by a ceremony where people, carrying candles and singing, act out the basic human search for a safe place in the world.
Because of my daydreams of a feliz navidad, when I ran across a recipe for rompope (rom-PO-pay), both my Mexico-fantasizing and cocktail-geek sides were intrigued: Rompope is a Mexican version of eggnog.
Many European-influenced traditions are variations on eggnog. The Dutch have advocaat, the Germans eierlikör, the French lait de poule (hen’s milk). The Spanish who colonized Mexico had ponche de huevo (egg punch).
In the convents around Mexico during the colonial era, the nuns became serious cooks, says Pati Jinich, author of “Pati’s Mexican Table” and host of the PBS series of the same name. The church was a major power, and it was in the kitchens of the convents that traditional Spanish recipes started to take in local ingredients; many Mexican classics like mole poblano and chiles en nogada supposedly came from the convents.
Rompope reportedly was invented in the convent of Santa Clara, in Puebla. “Puebla is known as the city of sweets,” Jinich says, and the nuns had a reputation for “an incredible sweet tooth. . . . They brought all the Spanish recipes, the flans and the sweets made with almonds . . . and started mixing the Spanish recipes that were heavy on the sugar and milk — which was very uncommon for Mexico — with Mexican ingredients.”
Originally, Jinich says, the nuns would serve rompope only at fancy dinners, to archbishops and politicians, but as less financial support came from Spain, the nuns started to sell it at the door of the convent. Now it is a common holiday drink; the eggs, milk and sugar are consistent across recipes, but spices and liquors vary. The variations I like most use citrus peel and ground almonds; the nuts bring both flavor and a thick, creamy texture, much the way nuts and seeds thicken many classic moles.
The recipe I tested (find it at washingtonpost.com/recipes) is from Maria del Mar Sacasa’s “Winter Cocktails,” and it makes for a lovely drink, but experiment with other flavors; I boosted the lemon and orange, and Jinich says she uses nutmeg and cinnamon in hers. One of her favorite ways that her family served rompope was to cut up fresh mango, pour the rompope over it and serve it very cold, turning a drink into a luxurious dessert.
For those who don’t do the raw-egg thing, by the way, there’s another Mexican-inflected holiday indulgence. This one is from Brook Vandecar, beverage director at Rosa Mexicano, for what she calls a horchata-nog. Horchata is a traditional drink typically made of rice, nuts or seeds, and spices (cocktail geeks will properly hear in the word “horchata” an echo of the word “orgeat,” the almond syrup crucial to the classic mai tai). Vandecar’s drink may not have come down from nuns, but it’s gluten-free, vegan and delicious, boozed and spiced up with a chili-infused tequila. The recipe (also at washingtonpost.com/recipes) can be served warm or cold and, like the best eggnogs, comes across creamy, luxurious and full of holiday warmth.
Feliz navidad, and here’s a toast: Wherever and whoever you are, may you have peace and a warm, safe space this season.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears every few weeks. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.