Egg cream sodas were once the effervescent star of New York’s soda fountain scene. Today, the drink is little more than a nostalgic novelty, served up occasionally at old school spots and retro-themed bars intent on keeping the classic alive. So what happened to this once-beloved treat?
At the beginning of the 20th century, soda fountains were a common sight and popular meeting place in New York City. The name described both the equipment — a tap that dispensed carbonated soda water — and the business, which often meant a place that served food along with the bubbly drinks. When they first gained popularity in the mid-1800s, soda fountain machines were primarily used in drug stores. Pharmacists mixed seltzer, seen then as a medicinal drink, with potent or bitter-tasting drugs to make them more palatable.
In the early 1900s, the fountains and the “soda jerks” who worked them moved on from serving just prescription drinks to a more tempting variety of sweets. As fountains proliferated in candy stores, ice cream parlors, luncheonettes, and department stores, carbonated water was mixed with fruit syrup, used to make ice cream floats, and featured as one of just three ingredients in an iconic New York City drink from the era: the egg cream soda.
Contrary to its name, an egg cream contained neither eggs nor cream. (No one is exactly sure where the name came from, though there are certainly lots of theories.) The soda was a mixture of chilled whole milk, seltzer water, and chocolate syrup (preferably Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup), whipped together to create a creamy, frothy, fizzy drink. It was one of the best-known drinks in the city at the time, but exactly how and when it made its way to New York soda fountains is the subject of competing theories. One of the most popular stories suggests that Louis Auster first whipped it up at his Lower East Side candy store around 1890. Auster made his own chocolate syrup and never revealed his recipe. Another theory involves the Ukrainian-born Yiddish theater star Boris Tomashevsky. It’s said that, while in New York in the 1880s, he may have asked a soda jerk to make a drink he had enjoyed in Paris — a “chocolat et creme.” Yet another story, detailed in New York Magazine in 1971, claims the egg cream wasn’t actually invented until the 1920s, and was the property of the uncle of sociologist Daniel Bell — Uncle Hymie’s recipe, however, did involve an egg.