It has been said, as the Holy Roman Empire was a misnomer in that it was neither holy nor Roman, so does the egg cream have a deceptive name, since the fizzy drink contains neither egg nor cream.
What the classic bubbly New York beverage does contain: milk, seltzer and chocolate syrup. (Though some insist that it is not a classic egg cream without Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup, there are vanilla and strawberry egg creams, too.)
Despite its vaunted position in New York City culinary lore (it was even enshrined in a Lou Reed song), the egg cream seems to have gone the way of stickball, soda fountains and other elements of lost New York.
(The egg cream has been, in some cases, more tenacious than soda fountains themselves, as in the case of the Mill Luncheonette near Columbia, which was transformed into the Mill Korean Restaurant, yet still maintains egg creams and lime rickeys on their menus.)
Now Alison Nelson, a lifelong New Yorker and the owner of the Chocolate Bar is trying to revive the egg cream with a bit of a twist. She is introducing egg creams in new flavors: hazelnut, cappuccino and another classic New York flavor, black and white (like the classic cookie).
“I was hoping to reinvigorate the egg cream phenom that existed in the early 1900s maybe every diner and soda shop will have it,” Ms. Nelson said. “I wanted to reintroduce the egg cream to a whole generation of people.”
“It’s one of those things that’s really surprising to me that it never really went anywhere outside of New York,” she said. “That is one of the reasons that my grandfather said he never could leave New York, because he couldn’t find a an egg cream.” (A variation, apparently, exists in Tbilisi, Georgia, and efforts have been made to bottle the egg cream.)
“When I first opened my store in the West Village, and I put it on the menu and none of my staff were from New York, so they didn’t know what an egg cream was,” she said. But they would try it and become enamored with the sensation. “It takes a few moments to marry the three tastes: the creaminess and the bubbles and the chocolate.”
Customers unused to the egg cream would pepper the staff with questions. “‘Is it pasteurized eggs?’ We got that one day,” she said. “We were like, ‘There are no eggs, don’t worry.”‘
But were there ever eggs to begin with (or cream)? That is a mystery that clouds the origins of this drink. Accounts date it to either to the 1880s or the 1920s, give a geographic origin to either to the Lower East Side or to Brooklyn, ascribe its name to the existence of real eggs or to a muddle of a foreign language (sometimes Yiddish, sometimes French). No matter which story you hear, way, it seems to have a strong Jewish connection.
As an egg cream history site explains:
One version or legend says that it began in 1880s on the Lower East Side of New York with the teenage Yiddish-theater star Boris Thomashevsky (1868-1939), who brought the first Yiddish play to New York from London and was also a founding member and pioneer of the Yiddish theater in America. After tasting a similar drink, called a drink called chocolat et crème, in Paris, France, he asked to have one made in New York.
Another version says the egg cream was created in 1890 by a candy shop owner named Louis Auster in Brooklyn. Mr. Auster was Jewish, as were most of his customers at the time the egg cream was invented. It is possible the egg in “egg cream” stems from the Yiddish “echt,” which means “real.”
Another version dates the egg cream to the 1920s and Moisha Zambrowsky, the owner of Moisha’s Luncheonette on the Lower East Side. Ms. Zambrowsky claimed origination of an egg cream formula that attracted generations of people to 239 Grand Street before it was replaced by a Chinese restaurant in the early 1990s. (You could get egg drop soup, not egg creams, a customer complained.)
There is another, less cited, origin of the egg cream. In 1970, Daniel Bell wrote a detailed account (he made that “Holy Roman Empire” comparison). He said that the egg cream originated at his Uncle Hymie’s candy store on Second Avenue and Eighth Street in the Lower East Side during the 1920s. The drink had syrup and cream held together by real eggs (as an emulsifier), and seltzer. It was an instant success. From all over the East Side people flocked to drink Uncle Hymie’s egg cream. Others copied him. But during the Great Depression, people tried to find ways to cut costs. They found that they could dispense with the egg and the cream and, by putting in some milk and reversing the spigot of the seltzer machine, concentrate the pressure in a narrow, powerful carbonated stream so as to fizz up the liquid into a frothy mixture that tasted something like the original egg cream.
After tracking down Dr. Bell, a retired professor of sociology at Harvard, at his home in Cambridge, Mass., he recounted that he wrote the piece in New York magazine when he was staying with Irving Kristol one morning and saw something in the paper that triggered him to write about his Uncle Hymie.
“They kept on calling it an egg cream even though there was no egg in it,” Dr. Bell said.
Ms. Nelson takes all the debate in stride. “There is a 40-year difference, 1880s to 1920s.” She also noted that H. Fox claimed its U Bet chocolate syrup was used in egg creams as early as 1904.
It reminded her of the tales from her grandparents. “None of their stories ever fully matched.”
She added, “It’s kind of fun that it’s still a mystery.”
CHOCOLATE BAR www.chocolatebarnyc.com