It’s well after dark on this late-November Friday, but Angel Roman’s work—to make 40 liters of rummy Puerto Rican eggnog for his annual coquito party the next day—has just begun.
A genial-looking fellow with a bushy black moustache and a Frida Kahlo T over his appropriately jolly belly, Roman is one of those knows-everyone, interested-in-everything types: He grew up in south Brooklyn, lives on the Lower East Side, is completing a master’s degree in library science, works in Queens as the deputy press secretary for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and hosts a Manhattan News Network TV show on Puerto Rican culture and issues called New York Coqui.
Which is slightly confusing, at least this time of year. The coqui, explains Roman, is a tiny Puerto Rican tree frog, and a slang term for Gotham’s Puerto Ricans. Coquito, meanwhile, is the island’s eggnog-like Christmas quaff, made of egg yolks, coconut cream, spices, condensed milk and a few hefty glugs of that island’s famous sugarcane-distilled spirit, rum. El Museo del Barrio in Harlem hosts an annual coquito contest, though Roman is put off by the hefty volume required to enter: “I’m not down with that,” he sniffs. “You have to make four liters!”
Using the kitchen of his girlfriend’s apartment at Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street as a base of operations for party preparation, he produces more than 10 times that amount for his annual bash, now in its 29th year, a must-attend function for 150 friends and growing—they hire a doorman—who drink and dance the night away in whatever space he’s commandeered, throwing back his famous coquito concoction and buying the homemade Navidad cards he sells to help underwrite the spirit-soaked soiree. Once, back when Roman served the elixir himself (in hand-decorated Arizona Iced Tea bottles) he forgot to sell the cards—and that’s not the worst of it. “I couldn’t dance,” he complains. Now he wisely employs bartenders.
Over the buzz of the ancient nog-hued blender set on “liquefy,” and amid the clutter of rapidly accumulating empties (condensed milk cans, egg cartons, Sam Adams bottles), he declines to share his recipe, a little boozy blueprint complete with sketches of bottles and cans he admittedly deviates from as the evening progresses.
“By the last round, we don’t care about the ingredients,” he laughs. “We’ll put rice cakes and tofu in it eventually.”
Second-in-command is Desi Ruiz, Roman’s old friend from college. “Focus, Angel,” enjoins Ruiz when his coquito co-captain wanders into conversation and away from his blender station. As a laptop blares dance, Roman and Ruiz put down plastic bags to catch the drips. “Leakage!” Roman yelps when yolks seep from the blender’s base. (One suspects his girlfriend, wisely absent, is the real angel of coquito here.)
The ingredients sit stacked, awaiting the can opener: 45 tins of Magnolia condensed milk, evaporated milk and leche de coco, plus a pile of blue styrofoam egg cartons. Ruiz cracks the shells with a knife, tossing the yolks into a measuring cup and pitching the whites. “One thing we don’t know,” admits Roman, “is how many calories this has.”
On the kitchen counter sits a tub of cut-rate cinnamon, and on the floor a six-bottle box of Bacardi rum, in both light and dark, which Ruiz adds to big soup pots of the three-milk and egg base before ladling the coco-flavored quaff into plastic tubs and setting them in the freezer to chill.
By batch three—there are four in total, each about 10 liters— Roman has abandoned any appearance of a recipe, with blending times varying wildly, depending on whether he’s deep in conversation. We stop and taste, to make sure he’s on track. He is: It’s liquid tres leches cake that’s beyond creamy, the cinnamon sweetness matched by the high-octane kick provided by the rum, an eggnog that’s donned her tightest dress, ready to dance.
I feel my first sip immediately, and remember Roman’s party motto: “Whatever happens,” he says, “don’t blame it on the coquito.”