FOOD & WINE

Egg Cream: An Ethnic Drink With A Rich History

April 10, 2021
Image of an old-fashioned candy store

For many of us, the egg cream is the quintessential New York fountain beverage. 

By definition, it is a cold drink—and despite its name, devoid of eggs or cream—made with three simple ingredients:

  1. A bissel (little bit) of milk,
  2. A pour of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, and 
  3. A big spritz of seltzer.

The exact amounts and order of the ingredients have been mired in controversy for decades.

Egg cream ingredients

Egg cream ingredients (credit: Jason Perlow, Wikipedia)

The drink is also defined by what it is NOT:

It’s not a chocolate soda (also called an ice cream soda), which couples chocolate syrup and seltzer but uses ice cream instead of milk. 

A sip of sweet nostalgia

Old-fashioned soda jerk like the kind I knew (credit: Library of Congress)

Old-fashioned soda jerk like the kind I knew (credit: Library of Congress)

Growing up as a child on Morris Avenue in the Bronx, I remember my mother taking me to the candy store around the corner from our apartment building. Money was tight so we lived with my grandmother in a one-bedroom apartment. Grandma Beckie slept in the living room, and my bed was at one end of my parents’ tiny bedroom. 

After descending the stoop of the apartment building and turning the corner, we would enter the candy store and sit down on one of the round swivel counter stools that invited kids to spin. I would watch the soda jerk making my egg cream, taking the glass out of soapy water and rinsing it ever so lightly—definitely before the time of respiratory diseases.

Egg Cream: The film

Egg Cream, a new film short written and produced by an intergenerational father-daughter team, Peter and Nora Claire Miller, brought back memories of my childhood. 

To dig into the ancestral roots of this drink, which was especially popular among Jews in New York City, the filmmakers interviewed a historian, egg cream makers, relatives and friends (including a sister’s friend’s grandpa) to parse its history.

Peter Miller is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker. His daughter, Nora Claire Miller, was only eleven when she expressed a desire to make this movie with her dad. Although the project started that long ago, it took a mixture of maturity and tincture of time to bring it to fruition. Nora is now a poet and multimedia artist with an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, living in Iowa City (where she reports there are no such products as seltzer or U-Bet syrup). The film was co-produced and edited by Amy Linton, and is distributed by Icarus Films.  

Egg Cream was recently aired for a suggested $10 donation by the Eldridge Street Synagogue. This lower East Side institution that opened its doors in 1887 was the first great house of worship and gathering place for Jewish immigrants in America. The online screening of this film was one of many cultural and educational programs and classes sponsored by the synagogue; this one was accompanied by a Zoom talk and Q&A with the Millers.

A beverage of humble origins

The filmmakers explain that the egg cream was a product of the poverty and hardship that existed in the crowded NYC tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Jewish immigrants lived and worked at the turn of the twentieth century. 

At a time when there was no air-conditioning and the summer heat in apartments, factories and shops could be oppressive, the 5-cent cold fountain drink offered some sweetness and the promise of “hope for a better future,” says Nora. 

Food historian Andrew Coe, who is interviewed in the movie, is said to have written the first scholarly article about the egg cream. He characterizes the drink as a “blissful moment of relief” for poor people who aspired to the lifestyle of those living in more affluent areas in uptown Manhattan.

Make way for coca-cola

The drink declined in popularity in the 70s because it was labor-intensive to prepare. Instead, small mom-and-pop shops opted to serve colas and other sodas dispensed straight from the fountain without any fuss. Now, with a few exceptions, egg creams have largely disappeared along with the old-fashion candy stores and soda fountains that once dominated the streets of New York City. Sometimes, you can find them on the menu at a diner or luncheonette in the boroughs. (It’s still available at Russ & Daughters.)

Old-fashioned sign at Russ & Daughters

Old-fashioned sign at Russ & Daughters (credit: Jerome Levine)

Egg cream at Russ & Daughters

Egg cream at Russ & Daughters: The real thing (credit: Jerome Levine)

By the way, the “seltzer men” who made home deliveries are also a remnant of the past. An article in The Atlantic notes:

“And where there was seltzer, there were seltzer men. They filtered municipal water, injected it with carbon dioxide, and filled bottles by the case, then delivered them to your door. Seltzer was once so commonplace, particularly in Jewish areas, that it was called the Jewish champagne.”

Vintage seltzer bottles (credit: Jerome Levine)

Vintage seltzer bottles (credit: Jerome Levine)

The documentarians note that Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, a long-time mecca for egg cream lovers, is rumored to have recently closed permanently, after 91 years, an economic victim of the pandemic.

Gone but not forgotten

Our delicious homemade egg cream (credit: Jerome Levine)

Our delicious homemade egg cream (credit: Jerome Levine)

The simple recipe for the egg cream has been passed down from one generation, evoking powerful memories of parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins—a gastronomic link to the past.

If you are Jewish, you likely know the recipe. I suspect that even our secular adult son knows how to make one. 

Although only 15-minutes long, this charming film bubbles over with nostalgia. It makes use of great vintage photography and filming done by the Millers years ago. The work has won numerous awards at Jewish film festivals, and helps document and explain the origins of a much-beloved beverage, rich with immigrant history.


Watch the film trailer on YouTube


Where to watch the film

The film is available for rental on Vimeo On Demand.


Try making an egg cream at home!

 

Yield: 1 serving

Egg Cream: An Old-Fashioned Drink Rich With History

Egg Cream Fountain Drink

Ingredients

  • About 2 tablespoons Fox’s U-Bet Syrup (in a pinch, other chocolate syrup will do)
  • ½ cup very cold seltzer (or carbonated water if you can't get the real thing)
  • ½ cup very cold whole milk

Instructions

  1. Pour chocolate syrup into tall glass.
  2. Add milk and mix well.
  3. Pour seltzer over the back of the spoon to create a foamy head.
  4. Then mix again in the center of the glass.

Notes

If possible use a tall soda fountain glass, a long-handled spoon, and a straw that's long enough for the glass.

The amount of chocolate can be adjusted to taste. Some people prefer to use vanilla or other flavored syrups rather than chocolate. Be sure to leave room for the foam to rise as you mix!

 

READ MORE

Sanctuary at the Museum of Eldridge Street

Sanctuary at the Museum of Eldridge Street, the restoration took 20 years at a cost of $20 million (credit: Jerome Levine) 

  • Reply
    Laura
    April 11, 2021 at 9:24 pm

    I love this! I’ve never had an egg cream. I remember my mom making root beer floats in the 60s.

  • Reply
    Irene S. Levine
    April 11, 2021 at 9:55 pm

    Not too late to try!:-)

  • Reply
    MR
    April 24, 2021 at 1:41 pm

    The Egg Cream originally had egg in it. A raw egg was a delicacy with the immigrant generation. A candy store in Brooklyn, not the LES, created the Egg Cream by adding the raw egg to a chocolate soda. Later generations did not eat raw egg so it was dropped as an ingredient from the Egg Cream but the name remained the same.

  • Reply
    Noe Gold
    April 26, 2021 at 7:14 pm

    Murray’s Candy Store next door to my dad’s grocery on College Avenue in da Bronx always served me an excellent vanilla egg creme. The trick is … real soda fountain syrup!

    • Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      April 28, 2021 at 11:31 am

      I didn’t grow up far from there. I lived on the corner of Morris Avenue and 169th Street.

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