Egg Cream: So why is it called that?
Leafing through the Jewish Journal, the article almost leaped into my lap. It was all about the egg cream. But not yet. At about age nine, I had earned the privilege of walking the neighborhood alone. One day, down to Avenue H and Rugby I went, crossing the street, making a left, and making a beeline for Lou and Al’s candy store. How well I remember it.
Push open the glass door, step down three steps. To the left was a big wooden box, divided by glass partitions. That’s where the candy was and on top of it the cash register; an old one, like you see in the movies. Large, metal, full of levers that had coin numbers on them. The rectangular glass window that showed you what was rung up and how much you owed. The register was there for a reason. If you were going to shoplift candy you had to do it right under either Lou or Al’s eyes. It wouldn’t have been a wise idea. Army buddies, they were not to be messed with.
Passing the comics was a phone booth, which will be a subject of another story, and beyond that a back area with tables and chairs. Across from the comics was the soda fountain, again like the movies. Marble, with fountains of syrup and soda that one of the guys “jerked” into a glass. Below them were the bins of ice cream. The counter sat I guess about 8. I loved sitting at the counter. Made me feel like a big boy. I was there depending on how my allowance was holding up, I had either a cherry-vanilla ice cream soda replete with whipped cream and a cherry on top, or a Lime Rickey, which started out life as an alcoholic drink but got converted during Prohibition, or my favorite, a Cherry-Lime Rickey. And they knew, always with an extra squeeze of cherry for me–no cost.
Box Seats Before the Gates of Heaven
Sitting next to me, one day, was an older kid. He ordered an egg cream. I watched Al make it. Somehow I missed the egg and the cream. What I didn’t miss was the dark chocolate and the foam that rose up from the glass. I was an allergic kid; chocolate was a no-no. One day I vowed to break “the law.” But there’s more first…
I said I missed the egg and the cream. Naturally I had a question. Here’s the answer with thanks and appreciation to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Though the egg cream is generally defined as a drink consisting of milk, a flavoring syrup, and soda water, its exact origins are unknown. The egg in egg cream is thought by some to be a corruption of a Yiddish word meaning “authentic, genuine,” but the name has been used since the early 19th century for various drinks that could sometimes include actual eggs or cream.
What a Friend a Jerk Could Make
Many people find that, in lieu of actually being productive, it is as satisfying to speculate endlessly on the origins of common words, especially if these origins are shrouded in mystery or in dispute. Almost as satisfying is the speculation on the origins of types of food or drink. If you put these two forms of speculation together you end up with the egg cream..
Before we get to the origins of this drink, what is an egg cream? It is “a sweetened drink made with milk or cream and other ingredients; especially, a drink consisting of milk, a flavoring syrup, and soda water.” This is a definition which doubtless will be unsatisfying to some, as the egg cream partisans (many of whom are New Yorkers, particularly Brooklynites, of a certain age) have a far more rigid definition of what makes an egg cream. The fabled egg cream of the 20th century is thought of by these partisans as authentic only if it is made with certain ingredients (milk, seltzer, and chocolate syrup), if the chocolate is a specific brand, and if the seltzer is from a soda fountain, rather than a bottle. While we do not dispute that this may well be the best egg cream, there is sufficient linguistic evidence of many other kinds of this drink that we have a broader definition.
But why is it called an egg cream? Round and round we go. Continues our source, “it is not only the ingredients of the egg cream that are oft-disputed; the matter of where it originated, and why it is so called are also subject to contention and rancor. As we are lexicographers, and not historians of bibitory (I love that word! Too bad it’s not mine…) things, there is a limited amount of light we can shed on the beginnings of the egg cream, and why, despite the fact that it contains neither egg nor cream, we call it by this somewhat unappetizing name.”
The egg cream is often said to have originated from certain parts of New York City (such as Brooklyn or the Lower East Side), in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Aside from the explanation about the corruption of a Yiddish word meaning “authentic, genuine,” in the other corner we have those that believe it was a mistaken translation of a Parisian drink made with chocolate.
“One problem with all these theories is that we have evidence of egg cream being used as a name for drinks (which did have cream and eggs in them) as early as the first half of the 19th century. The earliest recipes we know of made no mention of syrup, chocolate or otherwise, but by the end of the 19th century it appears to have been commonly added, along with eggs, in drinks served at soda counters.”
Some examples. “Take the yolk of an egg, with a dessert-spoonful of cream, or new milk, and if convenient, add two drops of oil of cinnamon; this will form a mixture sufficient to serve three people to mix with their tea; for cream being chiefly the oil of the milk, and the yolk the most nutritive part of the egg, they are both lubricating and nourishing.”
— The Hereford Journal, (Hereford, Eng.), 18 Jul. 1838.
“The egg cream is generally defined as a drink consisting of milk, a flavoring syrup, and soda water, its exact origins are unknown. The name has been used since the early 19th century for various drinks that could sometimes include actual eggs or cream.”
I don’t remember where I found that one.
Watching the arguers over the definition of the “true” egg cream would be like watching the arguments over the Frazier-Ali battles.
The secret ingredient is intrigue.
But really what is an Egg Cream we wearily ask again?
One problem with all these theories is that we have evidence of egg cream being used as a name for drinks (which did have cream and eggs in them) as early as the first half of the 19th century. The earliest recipes we know of made no mention of syrup, chocolate or otherwise, but by the end of the 19th century it appears to have been commonly added, along with eggs, in drinks served at soda counters.
So, we’ve reached the point of TMI (too much information). Except for this: There was even a drink made with a pineapple egg. (Don’t ask. I don’t even want to know…)
But there I was in 1958, not 1838 seated at Lou and Al’s lunch counter, and it sure looked good.
One day, I plunked down my .25 having made the decision to break the allergy law. Both Lou and Al knew my order was verboten, allergies, but their take on it was they weren’t my parents. Over the counter it came. Moments later, I was hooked.
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