The Tom and Jerry mystique: Northlanders still 'yust go nuts' for Christmas cocktail
The Tom and Jerry was invented in London, but 200 years later, it's Wisconsin and Minnesota that carry the torch for this sweet and rich drink. The hot-batter cocktail remains a regional obsession.
SUPERIOR — With a frigid wind whipping in from Lake Superior, the Friday before Thanksgiving wasn't fit outside for man or beast. Broadway Street was empty of pedestrians at the late-afternoon hour when Lindsey Graskey opened the Spirit Room, a bar inside the Trade and Commerce Building.
Within minutes, Graskey was cracking the season's first tub of Connolly's Tom and Jerry batter. Patrons materialized as if drawn by the smell of the season's first Christmas cocktails, which they ordered from a "Holiday Club" menu fresh off the printer.
"Are the hot drinks on?" asked one customer, approaching a bar where Graskey had become as busy as Phoebe Cates in "Gremlins."
"We'll be a group of 10," said another.
"Great!" said Graskey, spooning batter into a row of glasses. By the time the first round of Tom and Jerrys had been served, there were two dozen customers in the bar and the container of batter was nearly empty.
"This year I ordered 60 tubs," said Graskey, the bar's manager. By the time Santa comes, she might need to restock.
What the heck is a Tom and Jerry?
In a globalized world where you can Google any cocktail recipe ever invented, where Duluth makes whiskey and Australia makes aquavit, the Tom and Jerry somehow remains a distinctly regional obsession.
Outside Wisconsin and Minnesota, the warm, creamy cocktail is a mere curiosity. Even within these states, many lifelong residents have only a vague notion of what a Tom and Jerry might be.
It's a seasonal specialty, typically served during the holidays. With a little practice, you can make your own batter from simple ingredients, but a lot of Tom and Jerrys are made from the premixed batter distributed to supermarkets in limited batches. In Minneapolis, you'll find Flaherty's round red cartons. In Milwaukee, it's Mrs. Bowen's. In Superior, the choice is Connolly's.
"The traditional Tom and Jerry, of course, is rum and brandy, hot water, the Tom and Jerry batter and then a little bit of nutmeg on top," said Mark Connolly, son of the baker who created the cocktail's Superior spin in 1949. That's how classic Tom and Jerrys are served at the Spirit Room, with a hit of whipped cream for extra indulgence.
Superior's Steve Knauss and Deb Emery manufacture the Connolly's batter today. They follow the original batter recipe, but Knauss prepares his drinks differently.
"You come over to my house," Knauss said, "I'll have half a shot of spiced rum. I'll do half a shot of bourbon. Then we'll do hot water, and then two dollops of Tom and Jerry batter. Little sprinkle of nutmeg, and that's all I do. That's the drink."
Knauss and Emery co-own both the Connolly's batter brand and Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior, where earlier this month they sat behind a stack of Tom and Jerry tubs to talk with a reporter. "Less alcohol is better," noted Knauss. "A little bit in there, just to get your cheeks some color."
At the Pickwick Restaurant & Pub in Duluth, chef Dustin Tomasetti takes a less abstemious approach. "We don't shy away from the booze," said Tomasetti, pouring a generous shot of Castillo Silver Rum into a black mug along with 4 ounces of his own in-house batter mix.
Ritually, the Pickwick starts serving Tom and Jerrys each year on the same day the Christmas City of the North Parade winds its way down Superior Street. This year, that was Nov. 18, with the restaurant opening at 11:30 a.m. Standing behind the bar that day, Tomasetti topped a fresh Tom and Jerry with rainbow sprinkles.
It wasn't the season's first. "This is, like, No. 5," said the chef. The clock had yet to strike noon.
The complicated history of a simple drink
For most people today, the words "Tom and Jerry" evoke a feuding cat and mouse, but the Tom and Jerry cocktail predates the cartoon characters by over a century.
The names were first paired in England, in an 1821 book and play by Pierce Egan. Supposedly, Egan invented the drink as an eggnog variation to promote the play. "Tom and Jerry, or Life in London" was a hit at the time, but today the play is just a historical footnote, while the cocktail thrives as a cultural import to the Upper Midwest.
At least, that's how the story goes. The drink's Wikipedia entry is tagged with editors' labels including "dubious," "discuss" and "unreliable source." A page for contributors to air their objections includes discussion of whether a Tom and Jerry should technically be considered a cocktail ("it's a punch, as is eggnog") and how much brandy was originally added to each drink ("a half-ounce is not capable of 'fortifying it considerably").
When it comes to the precise nature of the difference between eggnog and a Tom and Jerry, the Wikipedia contributors get almost philosophical. "Scrambled eggs and an omelet are not at all the same thing," notes one by way of analogy.
Contributors even question the drink's Upper Midwest regionality, noting that Tom and Jerrys can be found in New England ski resorts and in sunny California.
Certainly, Tom and Jerrys were once more widespread. Warren Harding served them in the White House in the 1920s, and dedicated serving vessels were part of America's kitschy mid-century cocktail culture — although by that point, the drink's geographic contraction was well on its way. Long gone were the days when Tom and Jerrys would feature in newspaper accounts of NYC bar fights.
(In the Civil War era, the New York Times reported that a man was shot to death after trying and failing to escape a brawl. His flight was foiled, it seems, when he tripped over a Tom and Jerry bowl.)
"Tom and Jerry bowls are the cocktail equivalent of concert T-shirts in the vintage shop world," wrote Megan Kirgbaum on the Punch website in 2016. "You can't set foot in an antique barn without finding at least one dusty, opaque, 1940s milk glass version, decked out with stenciled green pine trees and a sleigh, with the words 'Tom and Jerry' inscribed in the usual Old English font."
That hasn't been the experience of Knauss and Emery, who collect vintage Tom and Jerry bowls and cups. "They're not easy to find," said Emery. "We drove up to Grand Rapids; there's a lot of antique shops. We were down in Iron River, Michigan. We drove all around. ... They're like 40 bucks a set."
The same year Mark Connolly's father, Jack, first started selling his signature batter, an artist who recorded as "Yogi Yorgesson" had a novelty hit with "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas," a comic song about a Swede who overdoes it with "about 12 Tom and Yerry."
When Mark Connolly was growing up, Tom and Jerrys dominated the last months of each year. A mixer in the back of his grandparents' grocery store ran "24/7 during Tom and Jerry season," he remembered. "Then when the baking was done for the day, the mixer that was in the back of the bakery switched over to Tom and Jerry."
Before dawn each day, Superior liquor distributors would be knocking on the bakery door, ready to collect a fresh supply. "We'd work all day long, and all night long," said Connolly, "and then deliver it, clean up, and make more."
Tom and Jerrys are "a cult thing," said Connolly. "It seems like outside of the Northland, most people don't even know what Tom and Jerry is. When they ask about it, I equate it to, well, it's kind of like eggnog. It's not, but, you know."
Just as an omelet is kind of like scrambled eggs ... but also completely different.
Beloved batters, sacred secrets
"It's sugar and eggs," said Knauss. "That's the recipe."
How much egg, how much sugar, and what else, exactly, goes into a batch of Tom and Jerry batter? The answers are what differentiate one brand from another. Knauss has no doubt that Connolly's rules the store-bought mixes.
"If you actually put down the three kinds that I know of in the Midwest," said Knauss, "and you literally taste them, I can tell you which is ours right away, because it tastes the best. It just does."
Tomasetti invited a News Tribune reporter and photographer into the Pickwick's subterranean kitchen, a distinctive space. "You ever seen a downstairs kitchen with a guy that just makes onion rings in his own room before?" the chef asked rhetorically.
Once underground, Tomasetti whipped up a batch of his special batter, which like all Tom and Jerry mixes is both simple in its basics and distinctive in its specifics. As with a classic martini, with a Tom and Jerry you know essentially what you're getting. It's the details that make all the difference.
The Pickwick mixer doesn't get quite as intense a workout as the Connollys used to, but Tom and Jerry season is still a little exhausting for those who sling the drinks.
"It doesn't matter what I post on social media," said Tomasetti. "I could be talking about the weather and someone would be like, 'When does your Tom and Jerry start?'" The drinks are available through Dec. 31.
"We end the year," Tomasetti continued, "and we end Tom and Jerrys, with a sigh of relief."
How much Tom and Jerry mix does the Northland go through in a season? Emery did the math: "This year, we made 236 batches." Each batch has 11 cases, each case has six tubs, each tub has 16 ounces of mix. That's easily enough to make a Tom and Jerry for every adult and child in Duluth and Superior, with plenty of second helpings to spare.
Yes, children drink Tom and Jerry batter, too. "When we were little kids at home, we had it mixed in hot cocoa," remembered Connolly. "You certainly can do non-alcoholic things with it."
You can even do non-beverage things with Tom and Jerry mix. At the Thirsty Pagan, Emery and Knauss serve a Tom and Jerry pumpkin pie. "You can get as creative as you want with it," said Connolly, who's pleased as punch with the people who now own his dad's recipe. (The Connolly family sold the brand in 1986.)
"I'm a musician in my spare time, and I play there two to three times a month," said Connolly, referring to the Thirsty Pagan.
"Mark's the star," said Knauss. "He's a rock star."
Tom and Jerry, Duluth and Superior
Eating a slice of Connolly's Tom and Jerry pumpkin pie at the Thirsty Pagan while Mark Connolly performs live sounds like the kind of recreation Yogi Yorgesson himself could get into. Or, you could have a stiff Tom and Jerry at the Pickwick before heading out to Bentleyville.
"When the sun starts setting a little earlier and we start to see snow on the ground, this building has a different shine to it," said Tomasetti. "We get those black mugs filled with that batter and the hot water, it warms the soul a little bit."
Today, the Twin Ports could be the hub of Tom and Jerry culture. It wouldn't be an uncontested claim: The Milwaukee area has Mrs. Bowen's mix, as well as multiple venues that make their own batter. One of those is Bryant's Cocktail Lounge, which goes so far as to open an entire Tom and Jerry Room on holiday weekends.
The Spirit Room's Holiday Club menu includes no fewer than four different drinks made with Connolly's mix. Among them are the Peach & Jerry (made with peach liqueur), the Xmas in Florida (featuring key lime cream liqueur) and a Sugar Cookie drink that incorporates amaretto for a taste uncannily similar to its namesake sweet.
"We just really honor the Superior-made product," said Graskey, "which we love."