Barry Newman
Barry Newman

A Touch of Nostalgia: Ode to the Egg Cream

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While purchasing newspapers and weekend munchies some time ago, a fellow about my age came into the kiosk with what appeared to be his granddaughter. While the little girl was busy deciding which snack she was going to be treated with, her grandpa was studying the selection of beverages in the refrigerator. Turning to the young kid behind the counter, he asked, in very heavily American-accented Hebrew, if the store by any chance carried egg creams. Both the kid behind the counter and I looked up: he in bewilderment, me in surprise.

When it was obvious that the guy behind the counter had no idea what an egg cream is, grandpa smiled and told the kid to forget it and paid for the bag of mini wafers his granddaughter settled on. I didn’t, though. “Excuse me,” I said, in English, “but if you’re referring to the bottled stuff, I’m pretty sure nobody brought it over here. Besides, it would be a waste of both time or money; I tried one of them a few years ago when I was in New York – not even close to the real thing.”

We spoke a little and after playing a bit of Jewish geography confirmed that our paths never crossed while growing up in our respective neighborhoods, and the only thing we really had in common was our nostalgic fondness for egg creams.

This encounter came to mind during the final scene of a third-rate New York-based gangster movie I forced myself to finish not too long ago. The sixty-something mobster boss is predictably shot in the final scene, proving once again that crime, at least in Hollywood, does not pay. As he is laying there on the pavement, dying, he looks up at the cop that shot him. “What can be more f***** up, huh?”, he says with his last bit of breath. “Y’know, I’ve lived in this city all my life and never once been to the Empire State Building…or had an egg cream.”

Now hold on one minute. There are, I dare say, limitations to poetic license. That the guy never visited the Empire State Building is at least plausible. The building itself is rather lackluster and no great shakes architecturally.  And since it lost the distinction of being the world’s tallest skyscraper quite a while ago, I suspect the only reason tourists to the city still feel compelled to put in on their sightseeing itinerary is its iconic association with King Kong, and maybe because it most likely was one of those tall buildings that Superman was known to leap over in a single bound.

But that a baby boomer from New York never once had an egg cream is more than a stretch and defies sound screenwriting and filmmaking. What I was watching was supposed to be drama, not science fiction or fantasy.

In the more than three decades that I’ve been living in Israel I’ve had many friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the UK, and have come to appreciate their passion for tea. I’ve never cared much for the brew, mind you, and rarely participate when the subject of tea is raised. But even though I have nothing of importance or significance to contribute to the subject, I do, nonetheless, recognize the unique bond that the cuppa has with those who come from the European side of the pond.

Indeed, such bonds are by no means one of a kind or culturally unique. Other nations, similarly, are also very much defined by their relationship with one type of liquid refreshment or another; Germany and beer, Italy and espresso, Japan and sake, etc. For New Yorkers who grew up during the fifties or sixties in one ‘hood or another, like my own Lower East Side, the marvelous egg cream would be the beverage of choice.

I’ve had, now and then, the occasion to introduce egg creams to those who were not at all familiar with this rather special feature of New York’s culinary history. What they immediately find odd, understandably, is that despite its name, the beverage contains neither eggs nor cream; long ago I’ve ceased attempting to find a definitive etymological or sociological source from where the name originates. What it’s called, though, makes no difference; a simpler and more comforting concoction cannot be imagined – milk, chocolate syrup and seltzer. The trick, of course, is getting the ratio of the three components right and ensuring that they are harmoniously stirred (or mixed, I’ve never been sure of the difference between the two). The candy store owners and soda jerks who put egg creams together were as meticulous in achieving the right balance as even the most skilled winemaker, and regarded the finished product with the pride of a first rate sommelier. That they routinely wore stained aprons and wiped the counter with filthy rags mattered little.

The mobster lying on the pavement had, unfortunately, no sentimental memories resulting from egg cream episodes. How well I, on the other hand, remember Sunday mornings, my father dragg-, er, taking me to synagogue and from there to Reevie’s candy store where my patience and reasonably good behavior were rewarded with an egg cream and pretzel. I learned later that the smiling, affable Reevie did not rely solely on egg creams for his living. He ran a bookmaking operation from the backroom and his telephone interactions with clients not infrequently filtered into the customer domain; I was told, on one such morning, to keep quiet and finish my egg cream when I asked my father why Reevie, rather loudly, threated to break somebody’s knees. No matter…to this day I remember those special Sunday morning noshes and being patted on the head by Reevie the Shtarker whenever I eat the more conventional breakfasts of pancakes or scrambled eggs.

Although shops like Reevie’s are, for the most, long gone, the egg cream itself has survived, sort of. Several years ago, as I mentioned earlier, some American company actually tried to bottle and sell the concoction commercially, placing it alongside the boring and commonplace juices, yogurt smoothies and soft drinks found in supermarket and grocery store refrigerators. Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well and soon became a forgotten product.

On the other hand, conventionally prepared egg creams are, I’m happy to say, still available. They are frequently found on the menu of upscale coffee shops and nostalgic-themed diners, although they are usually served in goblets that are generally reserved for multi-layered sundaes or other pretentious desserts. Like so much of New York, the egg cream has become gentrified, and is barely recognizable.

While I have yet to sample this updated version of what is a New York classic, I suspect the taste will not be substantially different than what I am familiar with, given the fact that the ingredients are very basic and have not really changed over the decades. Variations, I suspect, might nonetheless be expected. Those creatively inclined, for example, might experiment with flavors other than chocolate, although strawberry and vanilla egg creams sound, to my ear anyway, sacrilegious. And I have no objection to an egg cream being enhanced with a bit of chocolate or coffee flavored liqueur, or having the foam on top decorated with curls of shaved chocolate. The need to cater to the taste and preference of today’s millennials is understandable, and the egg cream is no exception.

Pity, then, the poor gangster whose final thoughts rested not on what he has experienced during his life but on what he hasn’t. The movie had little going for it, but the ending does make one think. Consideration should be given to the preparation of a reasonable and intelligently thought out “bucket list” so that there will be no unfulfilled wishes or lingering regrets.

With the opportunity to taste an authentic New York egg cream, needless to say, right there at the top.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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