How many of you have heard of an egg cream? Do you know what it is? Have you ever had one? If you are of a certain age and from the metropolitan area, you probably remember this beverage fondly. An egg cream is one of those disappearing iconic New York City foods. Lou Reed even wrote a song about it. “You scream, I steam, We all want Egg Cream.” Ironically, it has neither eggs nor cream. It is simply milk, chocolate syrup, and seltzer. While that combination may not sound appetizing, if made right, it can be delicious.
Until the mid-twentieth century, combination candy store and luncheonettes were common in the city. These were the type of establishments where there were registers up front that sold candies, cigarettes, and newspapers. In the back was a lunch counter and maybe some tables where one could get sandwiches, burgers, fountain sodas, and ice creams. This was the kind of place where you would go for treats such as an egg cream, an ice cream soda, or a malt. In those days, it was common to make the soda by mixing the syrup with seltzer from a tap.
It is not clear exactly where the egg cream was invented. The most popular attribution is to a Brooklyn candy shop owned by Louis Auster in the 1890s. It is said he sold as many as 3,000 egg creams a day. Auster made his own chocolate syrup in batches in the basement. His egg creams were so popular that a large ice cream manufacturer offered to buy the rights to his syrup recipe. He felt the sum was too small, so he turned them down. When an executive from the ice cream company heard of Auster’s refusal, he called him an anti-Semitic slur. Auster was incensed and vowed to take his secret formula to the grave. It is said that Auster’s grandson made the last batch of his chocolate syrup in 1974.
The competing claim to the egg cream’s origin is that it started on the Lower East Side in the 1920s. This candy store’s owner, a man named Hymie Bell, liked to add vanilla ice cream to chocolate soda. From there he got the idea to make a drink with cream, chocolate syrup, seltzer, and eggs. Competing stores quickly copied this drink, but removed the eggs to make it cheaper.
Bell’s concoction is one hypothesis as to how the egg cream got its name. Others say it came from a man named Boris Thomashevsky, who was an actor in the 1880s. After returning home to New York from a tour in Paris, he asked soda fountain clerks to make a drink he had there, “chocolat et crème.” Possibly “et crème” sounded like “egg cream” to American ears. Another postulate is that Yiddish speakers would refer to the drink as “echt keem,” which means “pure sweetness.” This phrase got anglicized into “egg cream.”
The decline of luncheonette style eateries and drinks like the egg cream started in the 1960s. With the growth of mass produced sodas, there was less demand for soda fountains. Egg creams are difficult to bottle or can. The syrup tends to settle on the bottom and the bubbles dissipate. This drink is best when freshly made.
Egg creams are traditionally made in a small, preferably chilled Coke-style glass. Whole milk is needed to get enough creaminess. There is debate as to whether one should mix in the syrup or the seltzer after the milk. Adding the seltzer first will result in a white head; the syrup first method leaves a brown head on the drink. Some devotees insist it should be Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup in an egg cream. Fox’s was invented in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. What makes Fox’s syrup stand out to aficionados is the lactic edge from the milk powder in the syrup. It’s best to add the seltzer from a pump to help the frothiness, but you can also whip it up by hand. However you make it, you want to strive for a balance between creaminess, sweetness, and bubbles. Here is a simple recipe from Serious Eats:
2 tablespoons Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup
1 1/2 ounces whole milk
3/4 cup seltzer
In a tall glass, add chocolate syrup and milk. Tilt the glass slightly and pour (or spritz) the seltzer off your stirring spoon until you have a nice foamy head that’s nearing the top of the glass. Stir vigorously to mix the chocolate in and serve immediately.
If you don’t want to try to make one yourself, there are still places in the city where you can order an egg cream, such as the Times Square outpost of the famous Brooklyn eatery, Junior’s, or Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop on Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street. Another famous location for egg creams is Ray’s Candy Store on Avenue A, near 7th Street. In the outer boroughs, you can find the retro Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain in Carroll Gardens, the famous Eddie’s Sweet Shop in Forest Hills, on Metropolitan Avenue, near 71st Avenue. Queen’s also holds the last location of Jahn’s, the well-known ice cream parlor, in Jackson Heights on 37th Avenue at 81st Street. The price for an egg cream at these locations varies from $2 to $7. Keep an eye out the next time you are in a city diner or deli and see if they have an egg cream listed under beverages.
An egg cream is a traditional NYC treat. I would highly recommend rewarding yourself with one sometime after a hard day’s work.