When I was a young man—no bigger than this
A chocolate egg cream was not to be missed
Some U-bet’s chocolate syrup, seltzer water mixed
Stir it up into a heady fro—tasted just like milk
You scream, I steam, we all want Egg Cream.
--Lou Reed from the song “Egg Cream”
While watching Woody Allen’s nostalgic Radio Days on DVD with my thirteen-year-old daughter, I realized that listening to the radio was as foreign to her as the scene where kids sat on stools in the local “soda fountain” somewhere between Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay. What are “soda jerks” and “egg creams?” she inquired. And so I began to reminisce about Z Cozy Corner (aptly named because it was on the corner of Avenue Z and Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn), where I’d spent the better part of my formative years—shmoozing with friends while imbibing countless egg creams. “The Jewish malmsey,” according to Mel Brooks. Paying 15 cents for an egg cream was as quaint and incredulous to my daughter as my parents’ tales of nickel subway rides.
There are controversies about the egg cream’s origin and recipe, but one thing is certain: you can’t make an egg cream without Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup, manufactured in Brooklyn for 104 years. Our weekly delivery of a dozen seltzer bottles arrived with a bottle of U-bet on our porch on East 7th Street. Even though my Eastern European grandmother, who lived with us, made pineapple and strawberry syrups to mix with the seltzer, I always favored the egg cream—which contains neither an egg nor cream. Its name may have been adapted from a drink in Paris called chocolat et crème by a Yiddish theatre star in the 1880’s.
My older brother had been a part-time soda jerk, helping pay his way through college. At home he used bell-shaped glasses just like in Z Cozy Corner. Although some people put in the milk first, he knew the only method for the perfect egg cream: pour about an inch of U-bet into the glass, followed by an equal proportion of milk, and then spritz in the seltzer. “Smash through the milk into the chocolate and chase the chocolate furiously all around the glass…all the time mixing with the spoon,” advises Mel Brooks. The denouement is to create a foam atop the glass, a frothy white head to a non-alcoholic beer. See-through brown bubbles mean an irreversible error in technique and proportion (they also crown what’s known as a chocolate soda—an egg cream without milk—an entirely different drink sometimes masquerading as an egg cream in places like Boston and the midwest). The head of an egg cream should look like beaten egg whites.
Exact recipes? If you’d asked my grandmother for her yeast dough recipe, she would have said that amounts depended on the humidity. Egg creams may not be affected by the weather, but you have to feel your way into the perfect balance of U-bet, milk, and seltzer. I’ve made egg creams with bottled seltzer when desperate, although real soda water is to egg creams as grapes from Champagne are to Veuve Clicquot. Never use club soda, and don’t even consider a skim egg cream. The proper way to down an egg cream is to gulp it immediately. And never sipped through a straw.
When I met the man who would later become my husband, I was horrified to find a bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup in the tiny refrigerator of his studio apartment on the Upper East Side. I ran out to the grocery store and gave him a glass bottle of Fox’s U-bet. Instantly he was hooked; he fell in love with me as we toasted our egg creams. He inscribed the inside of our wedding ring I Love You, U-bet.
Egg creams have become part of our popular culture: Harriet orders one in the classic children’s book Harriet The Spy, as does President Bartlett in The West Wing. Today young men don’t pursue careers as soda jerks, and U-bet comes in 24-ounce plastic squeeze containers. Occasionally in my travels, I can’t resist stopping in a quasi soda fountain, a good-natured re-creation with a counter and stools, but the egg creams never taste right. I still make my egg creams at home, dutifully teaching the craft to my nieces, nephews, and daughter. Passed down from generations, I now guide my daughter how to pour, squirt, stir, and gulp. She shows me that there are other uses for U-bet, dousing her chocolate gelato with a thick covering of this historic brown chocolate sauce. I am proud of her: she is resourceful, and has good taste.
Candy Schulman has written for The New York Times, Newsweek, New York Magazine, Salon.com
, and many other publications. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she once tried to order an egg cream in Boston--with disappointing results.