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The Egg Cream is Jewish?

March 18, 2011

When Harvey Randall was growing up in New York City, egg creams cost a nickel. Back then, for comparison’s sake, a glass of plain seltzer was two cents.

Those extra three cents didn’t get you a whole lot. A few tablespoons of Fox’s U-Bet and a couple ounces of ice cold whole milk. But combining all three ingredients and having them coalesce into an egg cream takes no small amount of skill.  

In fact, exactly how to make one properly is highly contested.

But Harvey Randall remembers well those sweet and foamy drinks of his youth. And he has spent a lot of time thinking about the best ways to replicate them without the use of a professional soda fountain. As far as I can tell, his method is unique, and I can’t wait to try his version of this classic at the Jewish Food Festival on April 3 in Schenectady.

The history of the drink is mired in legend and there are a few colorful stories that try to lay claim to the invention of the egg cream. Here are a couple:

One version or legend says that it began in 1880s on the Lower East Side of New York with the teenage Yiddish-theatre star Boris Thomashevsky.

According to most historians, the Egg Cream was allegedly created in the early 1900s by a Jewish candy shop owner, Louis Auster, who came to America and opened a candy store in Brooklyn, New York.

But inarguably the original egg creams were made at candy stores and soda fountains. Harvey recalls how the originals were mixed in the glass without the need for a spoon:

The soda fountain dispenser was a three position affair. The center position was “off.” It also had two “working” positions. You pushed back [away from the operator] to “squirt” and pulled forward [towards the operator] to “fill.” The “soda jerker” first poured the appropriate amount of syrup and milk into the glass and then “squirted” an ounce or two of the carbonated water into the glass to “mix it up” and then filled the rest of the glass using the “fill” position, topping it off with a final “squirt.” The experienced “soda jerker” did this by eye and rarely missed. I suspect the term “soda jerker” derived from the operation of pushing and pulling the handle of the soda dispenser, i.e, the operator “jerked” the handle to and fro.

The egg creams were made in small, curved Coke glasses, and contained over an inch of foam on the top. It’s the quantity and the quality of this foam that is the hallmark of a well made drink. Thus drinking an egg cream through a straw is almost akin to blasphemy. The foamy head does dissipate rapidly, which is one reason the drink isn’t bigger, as it is meant to be consumed promptly.

Modern attempts at mixing egg creams almost all involve long slender spoons, although there is plenty of disagreement about the order of operations and stirring technique.

There are those who combine the milk and the seltzer first, then add the syrup to the middle while stirring only at the bottom of the drink. This is said to produce a clean and billowy white head that’s a key contrast to the sweet chocolaty drink below. Then there are those who stir the chocolate and milk together until they are well combined before adding any seltzer.

But of all the stirring methods, I think this third one might have the greatest promise. I’m not even sure after reading and re-reading it how exactly this works. But I am very tempted to try.

Still, Harvey insists that no amount of stirring can recreate the “true Egg Cream experience.”  The best alternative he has found to a soda fountain is this unorthodox technique. Harvey combines one part Fox’s U-Bet, four parts cold whole milk, and eight parts seltzer in a wide-mouthed bottle so that it is filled two-thirds of the way to its capacity. Then he shakes vigorously for 20-30 seconds before pouring it into small cups.

Everyone I have spoken to swears by these egg creams. Certainly the passion Harvey has for this drink is evident. And if he says this is a good imitation of what egg creams were like when he was growing up, I believe him. I can hardly wait to watch him in action and taste one for myself.

Although now I really want to make a pilgrimage down to Hinsch’s.

For more information about this year’s Jewish Food Festival where you can meet Harvey Randall, learn his technique, and taste the egg cream of time gone by click here. I’ll be there at the Jewish Food Bloggers table with Leah the Nosher. And we’ll have challah and butter. I hope to see you there.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. llcwine permalink
    March 18, 2011 9:41 am

    I grew up on egg creams…either made with Fox’s U-bet or with Coffeetime Coffee syrup as at one point there was a fear of an allergy to chocolate. Syrup, milk and 2 cents plain….a long spoon and the proper glass….ahhh what memories!

  2. RealFoodMom permalink
    March 18, 2011 4:51 pm

    My dad grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn (1930’s), and always told me that an egg cream contained only two ingredients: Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup and seltzer (no milk), and was indeed ordered at the counter from a soda jerk, not made at home. In fact, he always mentioned how strange the name “egg cream” was, given that it contained neither egg nor cream. He also told wonderful food stories about Nathan’s, Mrs. Stahl’s knishes, and frozen custard on the boardwalk in Coney Island.

  3. March 20, 2011 7:39 am

    DB you can stir up the memories. My very first after school / summer job was at Halls Confectioners on Rockaway Blvd near – what was then – Idlewild (now JFK) Airport. We made our own ice cream every night – a half pint cost 35 cents – and we made egg creams at the soda fountain. The owner, named Iggy, taught us how to make them “Coney Island” style, with a shot of chilled milk and the seltzer mixed first, and then a squirt of chocolate syrup, stirred in very gently (with said aforementioned long slender spoon) to avoid disturbing the creamy white “head”. I do not believe I have had one since, which is a good thing because it could not possibly taste as good as the memory.

  4. Doug permalink
    March 20, 2011 12:59 pm

    I had my first and only egg cream in the late 60’s, somewhere in Manhattan. The counterman told me that while everybody called them egg creams, the name was really “ache cream”, and that it was just the thing for a stomach ache. I’ve never heard that label since, but I can see how one could settle your stomach, and deliciously so.


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