What Is An Egg Cream? Did It Ever Contain Eggs?

Posted on 01 Sep 2012 02:23

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An egg cream is a beverage that got its start in the New York. Just where in New York is the subject of debate. Did it originate in Brooklyn, as many claim? Or was it brought in to Brooklyn? Indeed, even the kind of establishment it was originally served in differs according to source. Was it the the Jewish deli or the Jewish candy store? Or, as seems more likely, the soda fountain? For that matter, is it a Jewish invention at all? At least we can be sure it does not contain eggs, but whether it used to contain eggs is another controversy. For that matter, it doesn't really contain cream, either. Today, the egg cream is more of a milky chocolate soda, consisting of milk, chocolate syrup, and soda water.

Of course, according to egg cream enthusiasts, there is a right way and a wrong way to make an egg cream. Debates rage on which kind of chocolate syrup should be used and on which order the ingredients should be added. If the seltzer is on top, as in the Bronx, you get a nice brown head. If the milk is on top, it's an appetizing creamy white, like the egg cream in Brooklyn.

Daniel Bell's Uncle Hymie

Daniel Bell, in in the March, 1971 issue of New York Magazine, claimed in his article, The Original Egg Cream - Its Birth, Death, and Transfiguration: Or, The Creaming of Uncle Hymie, that not only did the egg cream originally contain eggs, it also contained cream and his Uncle Hymie invented it in his candy store on Second Avenue and Eighth Street, on the Lower East side. The candy store was yet another New York institution and it usually included a soda fountain.

In those days, during the 1920's, the main attraction at a candy store was the chocolate soda, nothing more than syrup and soda water. And, according to Bell, Second Avenue was THE place to be for New York Jews looking for entertainment or a nice restaurant dinner. Afterwards, they might stop off at the candy store for a chocolate soda. Uncle Hymie called the area the crème de la crème.

chocolate egg cream

Chocolate Egg Cream

chocolate egg cream

Chocolate Egg Cream

The chocolate soda was nothing more than one part chocolate syrup and two parts seltzer. Uncle Hymie, although proud to be able to own a store on Second Avenue, was a bit frustrated and felt he had failed to make his mark. He wanted to do something distinctive.

Since the commercial chocolate syrup was too thin, Uncle Hymie made his own in small batches. This task he accomplished in the small back room on a little stove. His habit, while attending to the syrup, was to have his favorite drink, a chocolate soda with a scoop of chocolate ice cream added. The combination of the small, hot room, and his ice cream adulterated soda produced a happy accident. The ice cream would melt and he ended up with a creamy soda that was so rich he had to add more seltzer. This gave him the idea of serving chocolate cream sodas: chocolate sodas with ice cream mixed in.

egg cream poster art

Early Egg Cream Advertisement

egg cream poster art

Early Egg Cream Advertisement

Unfortunately, the recipe didn't work out so well: the ice cream would not mix in evenly but would settle to the bottom. No matter how much he whipped it, the ice cream would eventually settle back down.

However, there was another drink served at the candy store: the egg malted.

The egg malted was actually a "medicinal" drink. Raw eggs were seen as just the thing to keep a growing Jewish boy healthy. But what boy wanted to suck down a raw egg? The solution was to add the egg to a malted milk shake. This drink was probably heavy enough to serve as a lunch and it was pretty popular on the Lower East side. The malted milkshake with an egg was a regular enough soda-fountain item, in fact, to have it's own slang. For instance, a malted chocolate milkshake with an egg may have been called out as twist it, choke it, and make it cackle. See diner slang for more.

Hymie noticed that the eggs thickened the malteds. He figured they might thicken his chocolate sodas as well. He used syrup and cream and held it all together with eggs: the egg cream was born, and was an instant success. If you believe the story.

Then came the 'creaming' part..of Uncle Hymie that is. Some competitors started selling egg creams as well and one of them, right across the street, had the same name as Hymie! This guy started selling egg creams and calling them Hymie's Egg Cream. Can you imagine?

Needless to say, Uncle Hymie was in a rage and war was declared. Uncle Hymie put up a sign declaring his product to be The Original Egg Cream. Bell says that word did manage to spread and people were starting to realize that Uncle Hymie's egg cream was the true original. But the depression intervened.

egg cream ingredients

Egg Cream Ingredients: U-Bet Chocolate Syrup,
Whole Milk, and Seltzer

egg cream ingredients

Egg Cream Ingredients: U-Bet Chocolate Syrup, Whole Milk, and Seltzer

Uncle Hymie was using choice ingredients and couldn't let his go for less than 6 cents. The guy across the street started selling his for 5 cents. Uncle Hymie had no choice but to follow suit. It turns out, though, that the imposter was up to some dirty dealing. He wasn't using egg or cream at all. Instead he simply put in some milk and used a narrow, highly pressurized stream of soda water to fizz up the drink and give it a frothy and sort of creamy texture that was close enough to the egg cream to fool some people. Uncle Hymie couldn't compete with this without compromising his product, which he refused to do. He stopped selling egg creams and went back to selling only chocolate sodas. And the egg cream became the product as it is known today, chocolate syrup and seltzer with a dollop of milk.

I don't know about you but I think that is a great story which sounds credible. But we shall never know if it is true. Ironically, if the story is true it makes the "false Hymie," as Bell called him, the true inventor of the egg cream as it is known today.

Auster's Egg Cream

Another who claims invention of the egg cream is mentioned as an early competitor in Bell's article as well: Pop Auster, who opened up a candy store on Seventh Street and Second Avenue. Pop Auster's real name was Louis Auster and his grandson, Stanley Auster, claims that it was Pop Auster who invented the egg cream. Stanley, like Bell, worked in one of his grandfather's five candy stores.

He said that there were milk products and a chocolate syrup in Auster's egg cream, but never any egg or cream..the name egg cream was a misnomer. People thought there was cream in it because it was creamy, and they "would like to think there was egg in it" since eggs meant something expensive and good. Remember the eggs in the malted and it being seen as healthy and somewhat medicinal, and you can see that this is credible as well. But Stanley never really explained how the name came about, he just suggested ithat it was inaccurate.

Thomashevsky's Chocolat et Crème

Another story, which sounds like an urban legend, has been handed down to explain how the name came about. This story seems to be linked to Auster as well. It seems a Yiddish actor named Boris Thomashevsky visited Paris and had a wonderful drink call a chocolat et crème. When he came back to New York, he visited a candy store, which was probably Auster's, and told the counterman about the drink. The proprietor reproduced the drink and since chocolat et crème sounded like chocolate egg cream in the actor's Yiddish accent, the name stuck. Another version of this story claims that Auster (presumably) had already invented the drink independently and when the actor got back in from Paris he tasted the drink and said it as better than the chocolat et crème he'd had in Paris, hence the name being applied to the new drink.

The most widely held story is that Auster named the drink himself because the white foam layer on top resembled beaten egg whites. Yet another story says that since "Grade A" milk was used, it was called an A-cream, which became egg cream.

Regardless of it's true origins, the egg cream survived past the 1920's and, after the depression, became a big part of the New Yorker's childhood in the 1940's and 50's. Mention an egg cream to an older New Yorker and you will get a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Today, the egg cream not only survives but comes in different flavors, like cherry, lime, mango and even tamarind. Of course, most oldsters would never have anything to do with these!

The drink's Jewish roots have long since been forgotten by most New Yorkers, as has the precise place of origin. Or, perhaps these roots weren't forgotten, but simply never existed.

The egg cream is thought of simply as a New York original. It does seem clear that the candy stores served up a great many during the 30's through 50's. Too many older New Yorkers recall having egg creams as the candy store for this not to be true. This does not prove, however, that egg creams were invented in a candy store. Another invention story claims it was invented by soda jerks who used a syrup made from eggs and cream, which was eventually replaced with milk and a sugar based syrup. Being that it is a soda drink the story is not too far-fetched.

Possible Egg Cream Roots

There is a very early mention of the egg cream in The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages, dated 1906. This book had been printed since as early as 1897. This recipe, although it is not taken seriously by most egg cream aficionados, seems to lend credence to the egg cream syrup story of the soda fountain above. According to the book, the Egg Cream syrup is made as follows:

4 oz. Cream
12 oz. syrup (presumably simple syrup)
1 or 2 drams vanilla extract
4 egg yolks

Rub cream with egg-yolks until perfectly smooth, then add the syrup and the flavoring. This is to be served like a plain "soda" syrup in a 12-ounce glass, but before handing over, sprinkle a little powdered spice, such as grated nutmeg, on the foam.

Interesting! The egg cream is only one of many egg drinks in the book, which hales from the days of the "phosphate," which added acid phosphates to the soda mix. And this, along with the fact that eggs were a healthy and medicinal food, may help us get at the true history of the egg cream.

More Early Printed Examples of the Egg Cream

Here is another fairly early mention from the National Drug Clerk, dated 1913:

1 egg
1 malted milk
vanilla ice cream
vanilla syrup
carbonated water

The idea that the egg cream was invented in the way the above stories contend is seeming more and more dubious. What seems to have happened is that earlier recipes, that included eggs, cream, or ice cream, was updated due to economic realities, when people could no longer afford eggs and cream. Or, that is, when soda fountains could no longer afford to keep these expensive ingredients without raising the price.

Were the above examples not enough for you. How about one dated as far back as 1899! This is from the American druggist and Pharmaceutical Record.

4 oz. evaporated cream
4 egg yolks
1 oz extract vanilla
13 oz syrup

And how about the Western Druggist from 1894, which was almost exactly like the one above, except calling for only 12 ounces syrup. This claimed to be from something called Bonham's Guide, which turns out to be: Bonham's Guide for Soda Dispensers: Being a Complete Repertory for Manufacturing Soda and Mineral Waters, Water Ices and Ice Creams : Compounding Plain and Fancy Syrups and Dispensing All Varieties of the Latest and Most Popular Beverages in an Attractive Manner. This guide, by Wesley A. Bonham, dates at least back to 1894, and probably earlier.

Practical Druggist and Pharmaceutical Review of Reviews, in 1915, listed a recipe called simply:

Chocolate Lunch

Chocolate syrup, one ounce and a half; malted milk, a heaping teaspoonful; one egg; cream, one-half ounce. Add a little shaved ice, shake, strain, and fill glass with plain soda, using fine stream moderately. These "lunch" drinks are becoming very popular with both men and women, and are being featured exclusively at many fountains.

If you don't think this "lunch drink" sounds suspiciously similar to a modern egg cream, you must be in egg cream denial.

Sodas Began at the Drug Store

It seems that druggists had many choices of formularies, or basically, recipes. They were called formularies because eggs were thrown into sodas for the same reason many other unusual (by today's standards) ingredients were added: they were for medicine. They were also such a high-end product that just having eggs around was thought to improve your business's image and profitability. Putting eggs into all sorts of medicinal drinks and sodas was just something that a druggist did, and…

The soda got it's start in the pharmacy. If you've ever wondered why old-time pharmacies used to have soda fountains, it was because flavored sodas started as a way of making nasty tasting "medicines" palatable. Of course, in those days, they had a different idea of what a medicine was.

You might have a lithiated phosphate, for instance. That's a phosphate with some lithium thrown in. This gave a kick to the kidneys; and relieved gout and rheumatism. And have you heard of the cocktail called the Manhattan? Well, the drug store soda fountain might serve a Manhattan Punch, which was a green tea, lemon juice, and coca leaf extract concoction (cocaine comes from coca leaves). The most famous soft drink to contain an extract of coca leaves is obvious: Coca Cola.

Coca leaves not your speed? You might need some morphine or hashish instead. You could get those in a refreshing soda.

Is it beginning to seem like having eggs in your drink is no big deal? In our standard manual we have the Egg Almond, Egg Ambrosia, Egg Apricot, Egg Banana, Egg Birch, and Egg Blackberry. All of these were prepared the same way, except the appropriate flavor of syrup was used. Similarly there was the Egg Calisaya, Egg Catawba, Egg Cherry, and Egg Chocolate.

Chocolate syrup and egg. Add some soda water. Chocolate soda, chocolate syrup with soda water. Egg cream. Seems connected, does it not? It is very likely that the "egg cream" was either not invented in the way the popular stories tell, or was independently invented. It could also be that the name for the earlier egg cream, which contained eggs, was appropriated for the later invention, whether or not this later drink contained eggs.

There Were Many Soda Fountain Drinks Which Contained Eggs

It is simply not valid to completely dismiss any mention of eggs having been in the egg cream. There are just too many examples of egg drinks served in soda fountains to pretend that in an egg cream is a ridiculous notion.

We have Egg Coffee Soda, Egg Currant, Egg Claret, Egg Fizz, Egg Flip (various), Egg Foam, Egg Lemonade, Egg Ginger. Lots of Egg Phosphates. We even had Egg Milk, which the book calls an Egg Milk Shake.

Also, the Egg Shake, Cream, used ice cream. And you've heard of Egg Nog, of course! That's in there as well. If I tried to list them all you'd get bored and stop reading this article, if you aren't already, so suffice it to say that egg drinks were a thing at the soda fountain. So why not an egg cream with egg (and cream) in it?

Customers might enjoy all of the above plus an Egg Vichy Shake, or an Orgeat a la Egg, but an Egg Cream just never happened?

In fact, in the late nineteenth century, after the Civil War, egg drinks, milk-based drinks, and ice cream sodas became quite popular at the soda fountain. Customers were demanding drinks that were more flavorful and filling than plain soda water. Raw egg drinks became one of the biggest sellers in the 1890's, especially the above mentioned egg phosphate (egg, soda, phosphoric acid, and flavored syrup).

The phosphates, made with phosphoric acid, didn't exactly go out of fashion. Look on the ingredient list of almost any modern soda, and you'll find phosphoric acid in the mix. If that survived, it isn't so hard to imagine that eggs may have survived for at least a little while.

Malted milk, itself marketed as a health drink, also became popular around this time, and was a big fad in the 1920's. Milkshakes were popular since at least the mid 1880's and remember how I mentioned that raw eggs were sometimes put into malteds or milk shakes for "growing boys?" Well, in 1890, Funk and Wagnall's dictionary defined "milkshakes" as the following:

An iced drink made of sweetened and flavored milk, carbonated water, and sometimes raw egg, mixed by being violently shaken by a machine specially invented for the purpose.

So, yes, there were special milk shake machines, called Lightning Shakers, patented by Tufts in 1884; but the point is, that sounds a bit like an egg cream, doesn't it? In fact, it is a soda, and nothing like what we call a milkshake today.

Imagine if you wanted to produce something like that but you didn't have the old Lightning Shaker? You might do the best you could and come up with something similar to what Auster or Hymie did. Whether it was simply a chocolate soda with a dash of milk, or a drink made with eggs and cream, it seems quite possible that the egg cream came out of soda fountain traditions dating back to the late 1800's. The later proprietors of the candy store, or the soda fountains, may well have remembered these earlier drinks and sought to 'reinvent' them, conveniently forgetting the origin of the idea.

Egg Cream as Substitute for Ice Cream Sodas or Matleds

This brings us to the "egg cream as cheap alternative" legends, which claim that the egg cream was just a way to replace expensive ice cream sodas or malteds. It is just as likely that the modern egg cream was a cheaper alternative to the earlier egg based drink(s). This also gives a little boost to Bell's Uncle Hymie story, in which a cheap rip-off product was used in place of the more expensive and true egg cream.

Even if we choose to believe that eggs were never in the picture (which makes no sense, given our history, they were at least in the picture, if not the drink) we can deduce that the later egg cream is a simplified version of the "Milk Shake" found in our Standard Manual:

Put about 4 ounces of shaved ice into a thick 12-ounce glass, add 1 fluid ounce of vanilla syrup, fill the glass thoroughly with milk, and agitate the whole thoroughly. The shaking may be done in special machine known as a "milk shaker," or by means of a small hand shaker like that used for making egg drinks. Then strain into another glass and serve….Another syrup (e.g. chocolate) might be substituted for the vanilla syrup…

So, we have a tradition of milk, syrup, and water drinks. We have egg shakes. We have a milkshake being defined as a shaken egg, milk, and soda water drink. And we have a long tradition of milk, cream, and egg based drinks in general. There is absolutely no reason to think that the egg cream was originally invented in 1920's New York. Reinvented is what seems to have happened.

The Cost of an Egg

The original egg cream probably DID have egg in it; and cream! The early soda fountain customers were not likely to buy a drink that cost more than 5 cents. It was the traditional price and they had paid it so long it became a barrier. As economic times changed, egg and cream became a luxury, and there was no way to keep these ingredients along with the 5 cent price. The solution seems obvious. Take out the egg, replace the cream with milk, but keep the name.

None of this means that the modern egg cream creation stories do not have an element of truth to them. Somebody well may have popularized a cheaper version of an older idea that was never in as high demand as it became thereafter. In essence, the drink was a "new invention" to those who enjoyed it at the time. However, the claim that there was never any eggs in an egg cream is absolutely untrue. There may have never been any eggs in the modern egg cream, but there were certainly egg based drinks called egg cream, and other similar drinks based on eggs, that contained eggs. These earlier recipes are too similar to the modern recipe, minus the eggs, to be dismissed.

Today's New York Egg Creams

I have read that originally "New York" egg cream used vanilla syrup while the "Brooklyn" Egg Cream used chocolate. I don't know if this is true since according to every old New Yorker I've ever known, flavor was hardly ever mentioned for an egg cream, they were always chocolate. If you mentioned flavor, it was to get vanilla. The two traditional New York versions that survive today differ mostly by the order in which the ingredients are added.

  • Brooklyn Egg Cream: syrup, then milk, then seltzer for a milky white foam
  • Bronx Egg Cream: syrup and seltzer mixed, then milk added for a brownish head.

The famous Gem Spa on St. Marks Place and Second Avenue, a newspaper stand slash candy store, still sells serves an old fashioned egg cream, although it is in a paper cup instead of a glass. Although the store was already a well-known spot, The New York Dolls made the Gem Spa famous by posing outside it for the back cover of their first album.

Gem Spa newstand in St. Mark's Place, Manhattan

Image by Beyond My Ken via wikimedia

Gem Spa newstand in St. Mark's Place, Manhattan

Image by Beyond My Ken via wikimedia

According to Michael Miscione in the City Secrets® book New York City, "this Manhattan newsstand serves the best version of that world-famous concoction of milk, seltzer, and syrup that is often described as the quintessential New York beverage." Miscione says the secret, besides the proper proportions, is very, very cold milk. He complains, however, that the "mixologists" at the Gem Spa have on fault: "They will ask you what flavor you want." The only real flavor, of course, according to any real New Yorker, is chocolate.

Bottled Egg Cream

Today, you can get bottled versions of egg cream, such as Jeff's Chocolate Egg Cream (also in vanilla). They contain carbonated water, corn syrup, milk, cream, cocoa (or vanilla), natural and artificial flavors, preservatives, and are old friend phosphoric acid. They also use some vegetable gum stabilizers to hold it all together. Besides the milk and cream, it is not much different than any other soda. But at over $2.50 per 10oz bottle, it's an indulgence.
I cannot say it doesn't taste as good as a fresh egg cream, since, despite all the debate and hype, I don't think egg creams taste very good, anyway. Don't get me wrong, it is interesting and I do like it a bit. But just not enough to take a trip to New York. In fact, the history and nostalgia behind it is more interesting than the actual drink. You can make your own version with seltzer water, chocolate syrup, and milk. But, the real version needs a special chocolate syrup.

One of the traditional syrups, if not the traditional syrup, is Fox's U-Bet syrup, shown in the image above. You need whole milk, and any brand of seltzer. Put an inch or two of syrup in the bottom of the glass. Then add a couple of inches of milk. Fill with the seltzer and mix (you need to mix because you aren't using the pressurized stream of seltzer).

Egg cream experts will tell you, of course, that a proper egg cream cannot be made at home. This, to me, sounds about on par with the legend of the French beurre blanc a simple butter and acid emulsion that was claimed for years to be the province of only a few especially skilled chefs. For the egg cream, it is the art of spritzing the high pressure soda water into the glass over the back of a spoon, thereby putting air into the mix and starting to mix the syrup and milk. If you aren't a professional soda jerk, it's just hopeless, your egg cream will not taste right.

1. Abramovitch, Ilana, and Sea´n Galvin. Jews of Brooklyn. Hanover, NH: University of New England [for] Brandeis UP, 2002. 203-204.
2. Bell, Daniel. "The Original Egg Cream - Its Birth, Death, and Transfiguration: Or, The Creaming of Uncle Hymie." New York Magazine 8 Mar. 1971: 32-34. Web. 31 Aug. 2012.
3. Hiss, A. Emil. The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages: A Treatise Especially Adapted to the Requirements of Druggists and Confectioners. Chicago: G.P. Engelhard, 1906.
4. Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 205.
5. Funderburg, Anne Cooper. Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular, 2002.
6. O'Neil, Darcy. Fix the Pumps. [S.l.]: Art of Drink, 2009.
: Kahn, Robert. City Secrets Guides New York City. New York: Little Bookroom, 2002. 154.

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