Sunday, December 7, 2014

The egg cream mystery solved?

UPDATE 8-4-2015 - WIKIPEDIA NOTE - I have tried to add some of the documented mentions of "Egg Cream" before the NYC version to the Wikipedia article on the subject. Everything, even the mention that such mentions existed, has been deleted with this note: "Delete OR, non-RS text, and text about a drink which no RS states is related to the subject of this article.)"  And so your average Wikipedia reader will remain blissfully unaware that the term "Egg Cream" was ever used before it appeared in NYC.

A chance find prompts me to stray from the usual focus of this blog (early medieval food and French bread history). It concerns a drink long known to New Yorkers, but probably to few other Americans: the egg cream.

If you are unfamiliar with the egg cream, you might reasonably imagine it to contain both eggs and cream; the fact that it contains neither is a source of mischievous pride to native New Yorkers. What does it contain? Seltzer, milk and chocolate syrup. The most dreary description of it is as “an ice cream soda without the ice cream”. That such a concoction can, arguably, attain perfection – exemplified for many by that made at the Gem Spa, on Second Avenue – is one of New York's true mysteries.

The other of course is how the drink came to be; notably how, lacking both egg and cream, it came to be under that particular name.

The drink's association with New York Jewish culture is such that searches for an answer have always focused there. Writes Joy Parks:
One theory is that in the 1880s, Yiddish theater pioneer Boris Thomashevsky asked a New York City soda fountain to reproduce a drink he had discovered in Paris, but the French chocolat et crème got lost in translation. Others say the name is an Americanization of echt keem, Yiddish for “pure sweetness,” and some suggest it’s simply Brooklynese for “a cream.”The most common story is that sometime in the 1890s, candy shop owner Louis Auster concocted the drink by accident. It’s said he sold thousands a day. But when Auster refused to sell the rights to the drink to an ice cream chain, a company executive called him an anti-Semitic slur and he vowed to take the formula to his grave. Without Auster’s special syrup, other soda fountains relied on a Brooklyn original: Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup, containing water, sugar, corn sweeteners, cocoa and some “secret things.”
Jennifer Schiff Berg's article in the 2007 edition of the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink begins: “The egg cream, originally a drink associated with eastern European Jewish immigrants, quickly became a beverage so linked to New York that it serves as one of the city's most recognizable icons “ Her article in the 2013 Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America essentially repeats the same idea.

Berg does refer to a 1906 text which "includes a preparation with egg yolks, cream syrup, seltzer and vanilla", adding however that "few cream enthusiasts give much credence to this recipe." In fact, as it turns out, this last version comes closest to what seems to be the real original egg cream. Which, however, appears to be neither specifically Jewish nor from New York. 

In the The Housewife's Library, an 1885 work probably printed in Philadelphia and surveying a wide range of generally American specialties, George A. Peltz offers this recipe: "Egg Cream.—Beat a raw egg to a stiff froth; add a tablespoonful of white sugar and a half wineglass of good blackberry wine; add half a glass of cream; beat together thoroughly, and use at once."

A supplement to Scientific American, dated, October 2, 1896, provides formulas for several "Summer Beverages", including this one for "Egg Cream":
Cream..... 4 ounces.
Four egg yolks.
Extract vanilla..... 1
Sirup..... 12 "
Evora Bucknum Perkins' 1911 Laurel Health Cookery includes a whole section on egg creams, beginning with this statement:
Egg creams, in their great variety, are the most delightful ways of serving uncooked eggs, both for desserts and for invalids.For preparing them, the ingredients and all utensils and dishes should be as nearly ice cold as possible.The white of the egg should be beaten very stiff. The milk and cream should have been sterilized.The creams must be prepared just at the time of serving as they become liquid and lose their creamy consistency very soon.
This is followed by recipes for lemon, raspberry, banana, vanilla, almond, and maple or honey egg creams.By all evidence then, the egg cream was originally a drink with no specific cultural or regional association and it was called an egg cream because it contained, yes, both egg and cream. Its froth came from beating the egg whites, not from any added seltzer.

How did it come to be a drink containing neither egg nor cream, but always seltzer?

Such evolutions are in fact quite familiar in food history. Blancmange – literally, “white food” - was originally made with chicken and almonds, yet over the centuries it became a simple pudding (in the American sense). The croissant – that is, in French, “crescent' – was originally named for its shape; yet the word today is used for things like the chocolate croissant, which is square, though made with the same dough. Maraschino cherries, writes Linda Ziedrich, originally:
were Marasca cherries – a small Morello type that grow in Italy and Croatia – preserved in maraschino liqueur, a clear liqueur distilled from the same cherries and flavored with their crushed pits. What Americans now call maraschino cherries were developed in the 1920s... as a way of using locally grown Royal Anne cherries... Maraschino cherries couldn't be imported during Prohibition, and domestic cherries couldn't legally be preserved in alcohol.
And so the American cherries were put into brine, colored with red dye (being naturally yellowish), and flavored with almond extract. With the result that few Americans today would recognize an original Maraschino cherry as such.

Similar changes can be imagined for the egg cream. 

The original version was not the only drink to be made with eggs. Consider this 1888 recipe for egg lemonade:
Egg Lemonade—This is only prepared for the dispensing counter as follows: Into a pint tumbler put a tablespoonful of powdered sugar, the juice of one lemon, add a little water and one egg, and fill up with broken ice. Then place another tumbler tightly over the top of the first one, shake briskly until the combination is perfected. It is usually sipped through a rye straw in the same manner as a cobbler. This beverage is an all-year-round drink, a healthful beverage, and very nutritious.
As for using cream in a frothy drink, here is Hannah Wolley's 1672 instruction:
To make whipt Sillibub._Take half a Pint of Rhenish Wine or white Wine, put it into a Pint of Cream, with the Whites of three Eggs, season it with Sugar, and beat it as you do Snow-Cream, with Birchen Rods, and take off the Froth as it ariseth, and put it into your Pot, so do till it be beaten to a Froth, let it stand two or three hours till it do settle, and then it will eat finely.
Did later concerns about using eggs, in particular, in fountain drinks lead to replacing these in egg creams, just as concerns about alcohol led to changes in maraschino cherries? And was it simple economy that led to cream being replaced with milk? Such changes made, seltzer would have been a natural replacement for the whipping of either of the original ingredients to create foam.

The exact steps in the change, or where they occurred, may never be known; nor is it clear why the drink "took root" in New York City, and that city alone. But the origin of the egg cream can now be firmly traced, beyond New York or any one group, to a drink that originally contained both ingredients and whose name then was as logical as it is paradoxical now.

UPDATE December 12, 2014

First, a discovery which backdates the egg cream (with eggs and cream), even further; to 1850 -
How to Make Egg Cream. 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.(Blake) \
Otherwise, stepping further back (to 1843), one finds a yet another kind of egg cream:
One morning at breakfast, when I got up from my chair to manufacture some egg-cream, and had a large tea-kettle full of boiling water in one hand, and a glass with the egg in another, the ship gave a fearful roll, sending me and my kettle to  the other side of the cabin.
Unfortunately, this sailor was interrupted before making his egg cream with boiling water, as well as an egg, but apparently... no cream.. Luckily however recipes from much later (the early twentieth century) provide some insight into where he was headed:
Two eggs, 2 tablespoons of sugar, juice and grated rind of half a lemon. Separate the yolks of the eggs from the whites, and beat them with the sugar in a bowl until both are well mixed. Then put in the lemon juice and rind and place the bowl in a dish of boiling water on the fire. Stir until the mixture begins to thicken, then add the stiff whites and cook until the whole resembles very thick cream, stirring all the time; pour into custard cups and set away to get cold.
(Nursing World) Juice of half a lemon, 2 eggs, 2 tablespoonfuls of sugar. Separate yolks and whites ; beat yolks with sugar until well mixed; add lemon juice and place bowl in a dish of hot water over the fire. Stir slowly until mixture begins to thicken; then add beaten whites and stir until the whole forms a thick cream. Remove from the fire, pour into dishes, and set aside to cool. 
This variant of the egg cream, in other words, did not use eggs WITH cream; it used them to MAKE a sort of cream.

It is very unlikely that this version (which clearly took on a medical purpose) had anything to do with the modern New York drink. But its very existence notably expands the surprisingly large field of egg cream lore.


Parks, Joy, "Sweet Egg-nigma: The elusive history of an American classic.", Imbibe: Liquid Culture

Berg, Jennifer Schiff, “Egg Cream”, The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink,  ed. Andrew F. Smith 2007
Berg, Jennifer Schiff, “Egg Cream”, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Volume 1 ed Andrew Smith, Bruce Kraig 2013
Peltz, George A, The Housewife's Library: (many Volumes in One) : Furnishing the Very Best ...1885

“Selected Formulae”, Scientific American Supplement, October 2, 1896
Perkins, Evora Bucknum, The Laurel Health Cookery: A Collection of Practical Suggestions and Recipes for the Preparation of Non-flesh Foods in Palatable and Attractive Ways 1911
Ziedrich, Linda, The Joy of Jams, Jellies and Other Sweet Preserves: 200 Classic and... 2010
Sulz, Charles Herman, Sulz's Compendium of Flavorings 1888
Wolley, Hannah, The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet 1672

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