A New Generation Discovers a Century-Old Beverage

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There’s a sign on the wall of the Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain, the new-fashioned shrine to retro soda jerkery in Carroll Gardens. Hung high above a long counter, it reads: “Pour in ½ inch of cold whole milk into a tall, chilled, straight sided glass. Spoon in 2 tablespoons of chocolate syrup. Add bubbly seltzer to the top then stir vigorously with a long spoon to make a big, delicious, cold chocolaty drink. Enjoy!!”

It’s a recipe for a chocolate egg cream, the simple-yet-mythic refresher that’s part of the collective soul of Brooklyn, where, for the first half of the last century, soda fountains with tiled floors and tin ceilings like the Farmacy’s could be found on every corner, which is why owner Pete Freeman has made the drink part of his shop’s identity. (Buy one of their “Jerk” T-shirts and you’ll get a free egg cream every time you enter the store wearing it.) Yet unlike some old-time egg-creamers, he is not overly doctrinaire on the subject.

“I just changed it,” he says, referring to both the recipe and the sign’s wording. “This guy came in: Jack. I was putting in the syrup first, then the milk, then the seltzer. He said put the milk in, then the seltzer, then the syrup on top of that. Which I like, but I had to modify it a bit. So now I put in two and a half ounces of milk, then seltzer to three-quarters, then the chocolate syrup in and I add the rest of the seltzer, then I stir.”

In that short speech, Freeman exhibited two characteristics verboten to the extremely old-school egg-cream purveyors found in lower Manhattan. One is his willingness to fiddle with his technique on an ongoing basis. The other, far more significant, is his complete comfort with divulging the formula of his egg creams.

The owners of meccas like Gem Spa in the East Village and Yonah Schimmel Knishery in the Lower East Side would sooner sell out their mother than reveal the secrets to their frothy creations. They also tell you with a straight face that they make the best egg cream in the world, whereas Freeman simply shrugs, “This is the best egg cream I can make.”

“I’ve had a lot of people give me advice—contradictory advice, of course,” says St. John Frizell, who last year also put egg creams on the opening menu of his Red Hook bar and café, Fort Defiance. “One person will say less syrup, more milk, or vice versa, or even speak to the order of ingredients. We were doing it where you mix the milk and the chocolate first, so you get a real thick chocolate milk, then you add the seltzer on top of that. But this guy—there’s always some anonymous, opinionated ‘guy’ in egg-cream stories—said ‘no, you should add the milk first, then the seltzer, then you drop the chocolate through the foam.’ That works really well. That’s the one renovation I’ve taken.”

Freeman and Frizell are part of a new generation of Kings County restaurateurs and bar owners who are introducing the ancient concoction to a new generation of drinkers. In the past year or so, the egg cream has also found a prominent place on the menus of Cobble Hill cocktail bar Henry Public, Tin City Drug & General Store in Bensonhurst and Fette Sau and Spuyten Duyvil owner Joe Carroll’s latest Williamsburg venture, St. Anselm.

But its birthplace is up for debate: Like any iconic food, the history of the egg cream is, as Frizell puts it, “fucking confusing.” The most common tale lays authorship at the feet of Jewish candy store owner Louis Auster, who opened a legendary shop at the corner of Second Avenue and Seventh Street in the early years of the 20th century. Another common yarn is that Yiddish stage star Boris Thomashevsky created the drink after sampling a chocolate et crème during a Parisian tour. In this country, Yiddish tongues mispronounced it as “chocolate egg cream.” This story would help explain why Second Avenue, formerly a theatre district known as Yiddish Broadway, has long been the heart of egg-cream culture. The frothy potable is on offer not just at Gem Spa and Veselka, but also at nearby B&H Dairy Restaurant, Stage Restaurant and burger joint Paul’s Place, as well as the East Houston mainstays Katz’s Delicatessen and Russ & Daughters appetizing store.

Despite that across-the-East-River history, the egg cream has had a solid place in Kings County hearts and bellies for a century or more. “It seems like more a Brooklyn thing than a Manhattan thing,” shrugs Frizell. “I always associate it with Brooklyn.”

One big point in Brooklyn’s favor: The chocolate syrup that purists say must be used in a “true” egg cream—Fox’s U-Bet, made for the last century or so by H. Fox & Co.—is manufactured in Brownsville. And though the fountain cocktail is well past its heyday, when chocolate or vanilla specimens could be had at every corner drugstore for a few coins, you can still get a classic egg cream made the same way for generations at Brooklyn institutions like Tom’s Restaurant in Prospect Heights.

But like so many things in this borough, the beverage is being reborn for a new century of Brooklyn drinkers, and the egg-cream action has moved from the last few old-school outfits to the most modern restaurants.

“I just love egg creams,” says Joe Carroll of St. Anselm, whose menu includes sliders and deep-fried hot dogs. “I’ve always loved egg creams. I can’t get enough of them.” Carroll’s parents were from Manhattan and the Bronx and, growing up, he was regularly exposed to the drink. When his mother and father couldn’t get to a store that made them, they’d buy the ingredients—seltzer, milk and chocolate syrup (there’s no egg or cream in an egg cream)—and make them at home.

Jen Albano, who co-owns Henry Public with her husband, Matt Dawson, was also a childhood convert. Her grandparents were from Brooklyn, and growing up on Long Island she heard a lot about egg creams. “That was something we thought we should have,” she says. “The spirit of our place is to celebrate Brooklyn and layer it with historically relevant Brooklyn iconography, and the egg cream seemed like that sort of thing.”

Freeman, too, was indoctrinated early, though thanks to New Yorkers who moved south. “I grew up in Florida, and that’s where I drank egg creams. I didn’t know what Brooklyn was when I was six.” The Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain, which Freeman runs with his sister, Gia Giasullo, and other family members, is a quixotic project. Carved out of the long-untouched Longo Pharmacy, and employing many of the old fixtures that were left to age there for decades, it is as tied to the modern locavore movement as it is to Brooklyn’s nostalgic dime-store past. For sale on the shelves opposite the counter are jars of pickles and preserves made by newly minted local purveyors, and the flavored sodas use fresh, Brooklyn-made fruit syrups.

“The concept has been thought of before, and my philosophy is it’s a good concept,” Freeman says of his faithful recreation of a joint George Bailey might have worked in as a kid. “Our generation had its chance to come up with something new. We didn’t figure out anything new. I feel like it was Starbucks—that was our great idea. But a soda fountain is more community-oriented, whereas coffee shops have always been slightly isolationist.”

Freeman used to get his seltzer at the Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie, a refilling plant that is the last of its kind in Brooklyn, and, after Fox’s U-Bet, another point in Brooklyn’s taking the title as the spiritual home of the egg cream. Joe Carroll, too, relies on Gomberg, getting his seltzer the old-fashioned way, in heavy glass bottles from deliveryman Eli Miller. Jen Albano, meanwhile, gets her bottles from another long-standing courier, Walter Backerman.

Freeman switched from bottles to homegrown fizzy water, however, after checking out Frizell’s seltzer system at Fort Defiance. “It started with my love of seltzer,” says Frizell. “I drink it almost exclusively. I’ve almost ODd on it. There’s something refreshing about seltzer. It’s like the scrubbing bubbles. I wanted it to be really bright, really sharp.” So he found and hired Ron Starman, an evangelistic third-generation seltzer man, to install his seltzer works. The resultant set-up sends the water though a cold steel plate three times, and the water is injected with carbon dioxide right before it comes out of the spigot. As Starman explains it, the colder the water, the more intense the carbonation.

“Ron was like, ‘So, are you doing egg creams?'” recalls Frizell. “He said, ‘With seltzer like this, you have to do egg creams. You’ve got better seltzer than anyone else in the borough right now. It would be a crime not to do egg creams.'” Then Starman showed him how to make one: “I got the Fox’s U-Bet. I got the milk. And that’s the whole story. I did it because I can and people who like them really like them.”

Hearing about Fort Defiance’s sleek seltzer system, Freeman decided to abandon bottle service at the Farmacy and enlist the services of Starman. It wasn’t easy. “I felt I had to prove to him that I was serious,” remembers Freeman. And how: Freeman intends to revive the bygone Starman tradition of selling egg creams from a mobile cart. (At press time, Freeman says his Starman-made cart will be wheeled out any weekend now at the Brooklyn Flea.)

Furthermore, Frizell thinks that the egg cream is fashion-resistant when it comes to fancified, artisanal augmentations. “I tried it with more gourmet syrups, but I think egg cream is going to be the last thing to be gourmetized. I don’t think it will ever happen. U-Bet has a lock on it. People will laugh at your gourmet egg cream. They will scoff at you. The people who are into gourmet stuff don’t know about egg creams. And the people who know egg creams don’t want the gourmet stuff.”

Albano agrees: “We toyed with the idea of an artisanal egg cream. We played around.” But in the end they went out like everybody else and bought the Fox’s U-Bet. “We dug it,” she says of the syrup. (At $5, the Henry Public egg cream is the most expensive discussed in this article. Most weigh in at $2.50.)

So decades after young trolley dodgers slurped up their bromides, egg creams still work their classic magic. “We get validation almost every day when you see someone sit down with their kid and say, ‘We’re going to have an egg cream!'” says Freeman, who also carries pretzel rods, the beverage’s traditional savory side. “I had a kid the other day. The mom was so fired up. She had her camera ready—his first egg cream.”

“I have a romance for the food and atmosphere for old Brooklyn,” says Albano, who is raising her toddler on egg creams. “I think that’s part of the allure of New York. The egg cream is like history, an experience in a glass.”

Robert Simonson—who writes about cocktails, spirits, wine and beer for the Times, Wine Enthusiast, Eater.com and others—took a break from the alcoholic (though not liquid entirely) to write this piece on egg creams. Like most egg-cream purveyors, he prefers vanilla. His most recent book, The Gentleman Press Agent—which has nothing to do with egg creams, or anything you can drink—was published in June by Applause.

A Real Jerk: Pete Freeman runs a new-but-decidedly old-school operation at Farmacy in Carroll Gardens, where egg creams are concocted from carefully curated ingredients.

Fizz Whiz: The beverages at Red Hook hot spot Fort Defiance sparkle, thanks in part to the handiwork of celebrity seltzer man Ron Starman.

Fountain jockeys at places like Fort Defiance, Brooklyn Farmacy and Henry Public are introducing the simple egg cream to a new generation of drinkers. The fact that finicky foodies are willing to take direction from old seltzer men is a measure of the respect accorded the ancient concoction.

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