The founders of two local, family-run dairies died seven months apart this year, both at enviably ripe old ages — their longevity a seeming endorsement for imbibing rich and creamy goodness.
When the dairy patriarchs started out in the 1940s, “there were 640 dairies in Michigan,” says John Calder, the youngest of William Calder’s four children, who works in the family business along with his brother, daughter, and young grandson.
“There are 15 or 20 left.”
But the tradition hasn’t died with the passing of the elders. “The local food movement has been beneficial to small dairies,” the younger Calder says. Holiday traditions help.
It’s eggnog season. And the beverage once favored by English aristocrats is, at Calder, a Downriver delicacy — a Christmas quaff locally made with Michigan milk.
John Calder grew up on the stuff. “I put a dab in my coffee, and I’ll have a small juice glass,” he says. “It’s around 12-percent butterfat. Another thing people do is make French toast with it.”
As he spoke, he was about to sample a new recommended concoction: a glass filled with half Vernor’s, half Calder’s eggnog — a sort of Boston-cooler derivative rooted in Detroit history.
Of course, the classic libation often includes a liberal splash of spirits: Bourbon, rum, whiskey, and cognac are all popular.
As American lore has it, our first president was a fan of eggnog enriched with a strong mix of hard liquors — an understandable pleasure.
Unlike its liquor-doused Christmas cousin, fruitcake, eggnog tastes good. It still takes an occasional comedic turn (think National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and the moose mugs). In the “Classy Christmas” episode of NBC’s The Office, the cringe-inducing former boss Michael says: “The name is Bond … Santa Bond. I’ll have an eggnog, shaken not stirred.”
At Calder’s, however, the thick beverage is serious (if tasty) business — one that begins with cows on the family farm in Carleton, north of Monroe.
“When people first started coming out to the farm, they would talk about ‘my grandfather’s farm or my father’s farm,’ ” Calder says. “Now, for the first time, we’re getting our first generation removed from the farm. They don’t know milk’s warm coming out of the cow. It’s good to know, good to see how it’s done and where it comes from.”
Although the farm is open to the public, Calder says it’s a working farm, not a showplace. The family’s 500 acres are home to 350 animals, including 150 cows. Visitors can observe “the girls,” as Calder calls them, in the milking parlor. Children are allowed to feed calves with a bottle.
The girls include Brown Swiss, Jerseys, and Holsteins and crosses between those groups. Calder explains the significance of the bovine variety: “Holsteins are probably 80 percent of this country’s milk. They produce more milk but have lower butterfat and protein. Jerseys have more butterfat and protein but less milk. Brown Swiss are in the middle. So we blend them all for a little different flavor.”
“The Swiss are my favorite,” he adds. “They’ve got big, brown eyes. They can be hardheaded, too.”
The elder Calder grew up in Rhode Island, where he worked delivering milk by horse and wagon. His family moved to Michigan for more opportunity. But after he became a self-employed dairyman in 1946, he formulated a New England-style eggnog.
“We take 40-percent cream, milk, sugar, and our flavoring [including nutmeg] is from a local flavoring company, so it’s a Michigan-made product,” Calder says. “We heat it up so it’s pasteurized and hold the heat for the legal length of time. Then we cool it and bottle it.”
The holiday ’nog is sold in area stores in glass containers that are specially designed by a school or organization every year.
Calder also still home-delivers. Its 20 delivery routes crisscross greater metro Detroit from South Lyon to Temperance and west to Dexter and Chelsea. Fans of the eggnog — and eggnog ice cream — also drive distances to the Calder Dairy store on Southfield Road in Lincoln Park.
As for partaking, Calder says, “If you have to worry about the calories, you shouldn’t drink it” — or just find a happy justification.
As TV chef Bobby Flay, who makes a Puerto Rican eggnog called coquito, says, “Between November and New Year’s Day, I don’t count, inquire, or even think about calories. I just go to the gym more often.”
Perhaps we could just raise an eggnog toast to the long-lived dairy founders, who apparently enjoyed their products and worked them off on the job.
Calder eggnog is sold at Whole Foods, Holiday, Westborn, Plum, and Hiller’s markets. Calder company store: 313-381-8858, farm: 734-654-2622. Also: guernseyfarmsdairy.com.