The Egg Cream: an iconic drink with staying power
In honor of National Egg Cream Day on March 15, we’re reposting this blog from 2019, with some edits and new information about an upcoming egg cream program!
Please let me be the first to wish you a happy National Egg Cream Day! The holiday is coming up on March 15th and I don’t know about you, but I have been waiting for an excuse to celebrate the perfect egg cream.
So what is even IN the perfect egg cream? Let me start off by telling you, dear reader, that there are no eggs OR cream in this beloved New York drink! I will let esteemed Museum at Eldridge Street docent, and quintessential Lower East Sider, Gil Gordon have the honor of describing how egg creams were made in his time:
“Fox’s U-Bet Syrup, seltzer (the seltzer man came once a week) and of course whole milk, none of that skim garbage, they didn’t even make it, it’s sacrilegious! And it had to be U-Bet Syrup, nothing else.”
To this day, when Gil makes his own egg cream, he’s not exact in his measurements. But the ingredient list is precise. For Gil, and most other New Yorkers, the chocolate syrup has to be U-Bet. Back in the egg cream’s heyday, many homes would have seltzer delivered weekly, ice cold, by the seltzer man. I have my own memories of the milk man coming, but the seltzer man is from a bygone era (unless you’re one of the Brooklyn Seltzer Boys’ customers). Gil’s strong opinions about the egg cream made me wonder about other’s memories and feelings about this beloved drink. So I asked friends and family to share their egg cream thoughts. What I learned was that the egg cream elicits strong feelings, loving memories, and a whole lot of nostalgia.
Museum consultant and docent David Silver remembers his grandparents eagerly awaiting the seltzer delivery, so that the whole family could enjoy frothy cold egg creams in the comfort of their kitchens. David was a dedicated U-Bet user, like Gil; he said the seltzer man even brought the ubiquitous brand with the seltzer delivery!
Of course, not everyone drank egg creams in their kitchens. Egg creams were mostly found at the soda fountain and museum docent Phyllis Kirshenbaum was determined to drink hers at the counter. At age seven, Phyllis would take quarters from her father’s dresser and visit the soda fountain on the corner to treat herself to an egg cream, pretzel stick, and Archie comic; “ a lot of mileage for a quarter.” Eventually, Phyllis and her father established an allowance system after her father realized her revenue source involved pilfering his valuable collection of US Mint quarters.
You can never be sure where an egg cream craving will strike. Museum docent Clarice Feinman and her daughter were basking on a beach in Fiji when the craving hit, so they made their own using sparkling water, milk and cocoa mix.
For some, egg creams defined childhoods and stick around into adolescence and adulthood. Brad Shaw, Museum docent and former Manager of Visitor Services and Operations, enjoyed his egg creams with hot dogs at 3 AM at Dave’s on the corner of Broadway and Canal. The tasty treats were needed sustenance after long nights out “clubbing and carousing” with his friends.
Egg creams were an adult affair for former Director of Cultural Programs Hanna Griff-Sleven, too. She did not like egg creams until she began planning the Museum’s popular festival, Eggrolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas. Hanna was working hard one festival day and needed a pick-me-up and the only thing that helped her through the day was a cold and refreshing egg cream made by one of the festival volunteers. That was enough to cue a new appreciation for the drink.
Our annual festival brings out egg cream lovers of all ages and with many different stories surrounding their favorite drink. Festival enthusiast Rachel likes to gets her egg creams at Tom’s Restaurant in Brooklyn. Rachel first visited Tom’s with her grandmother where the pair ordered one egg cream with two straws. Upon the first sip, Rachel’s grandmother cried out “This needs more seltzer!” and immediately asked the waiter to pour more until her desired level of carbonation had been reached. “Now that’s a real egg cream!”
Egg creams are pretty well known in New York City circles, but their reach doesn’t extend much further. Growing up in Western New York, Director of Public Engagement Chelsea Dowell had never heard of them before moving to New York. Her first taste came at Houston Street’s iconic Yonah Shimmel’s, along with a knish and a lime-rickey; she was “going for the full trifecta.”
These days, a revival of the soda fountain in New York City is making it easier to find an egg cream. Places like Brooklyn Farmacy, Russ and Daughters, Eisenberg’s, and Gem Spa [sadly, Gem Spa closed in early 2020] are serving up classics and thinking of new ways to introduce thirsty visitors to famous the famous New York egg cream. Gem Spa even served one from their bodega counter made with orange soda!
Here at the museum, we’re interested in not just drinking egg creams but in exploring their history, what they represent, and what’s in their future. To that end, on April 8th we’re hosting a screening & talk about the short film: Egg Cream! The film was made by father-daughter duo Peter and Nora Claire Miller and we’re thrilled that they’ll sit down with us to talk about their experience searching for Jewish heritage and community at the bottom of a big, frothy egg cream.
Happy National Egg Cream Day from the Museum at Eldridge Street! We hope you’ll celebrate by supporting a local business that sells egg creams in your area. And we look forward to seeing you at the program on April 8!
This post was written by Haley Coopersmith, former Manager of Programs at the Museum at Eldridge Street.