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shameless pleading

Egg cream

And if you’re not in New York City, that’s not a real bagel. Sorry.

Dear Word Detective:  Recently the term “egg cream” was mentioned on a newsgroup I frequent, and this led to the question of why a concoction that contains neither eggs nor cream should have that name. (And when I searched your website, I was surprised to find no listing for “egg cream.” Did I miss it? I can’t believe an ex-pat New Yorker such as yourself would have missed it. I also moved away from New York many years ago, but, as a friend of my puts it, “I still have my passport.”) One of the members said that her husband raised the question of ingredients whenever anyone mentioned “egg creams” and said he just couldn’t let it go. I wrote back to ask if she had broken the news about “baby oil” to him. This led to a total digression into posts about what exactly goes into “Girl Scout cookies,” “moth balls,” etc., not to mention oxymorons like “Holy Roman Empire” (which wasn’t Holy, Roman or an Empire) and the “German Democratic Republic” (the former East Germany). And this leads to our two questions: (1) What is is the origin of the term “egg cream,” and did some early version of the beverage actually contain eggs, cream or both? (2)  Is there a word for ambiguous constructions like “Girl Scout cookies” and the like? It seems that someone ought to have coined one by now. (If not, I may have to take a stab at it. One of my coinages – “webmosis” – as in “I picked up my knowledge of 18th century salad forks by sheer webmosis” – has actually come back to me in a note from a total stranger since I’ve released it into the wild. — Joe.

Well, to answer your second question first (after shortening the whole shebang a bit, sorry), I don’t know of any term for such ambiguous terms as “moth balls,” but if you can think of one, go for it. “Webmosis” is great. Incidentally, I loved the smell of moth balls as a kid, which may explain my lack of coordination in gym class and all sorts of other things later on.

I actually did write a column on “egg cream” many years ago, but that was back when I wrote for the New York Daily News, so it’s not on my website. The “egg cream” is the quintessential New York City drink, made with seltzer, whole milk and chocolate syrup, stirred with a long-handled spoon and served in a small glass. For connoisseurs, the only proper chocolate syrup to use in an egg cream is Fox’s U-bet, made, of course, in Brooklyn.

By now attentive readers will have noticed that neither eggs nor cream appear in that recipe, and there’s some debate as to whether they ever did. The egg cream is generally agreed to have been introduced in the early 1900s at a candy store owned by Louis Auster on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Inexpensive fountain drinks were popular in those days (including the classic “two cents plain” glass of seltzer), so it’s entirely possible that Auster simply perfected and popularized an existing concoction rather than actually inventing the egg cream, but he gets the credit anyway. As for the ingredients, some accounts say the original drink was made from syrup containing eggs and cream, others say that “egg” in the name is just an Anglicized form of the Yiddish “echt,”meaning “genuine” or “real,” and still others say that the name “egg cream” was never meant to be taken literally and simply referred to the taste of the drink. Hey, we’re talking New York here — you expected just one opinion?

By the early 20th century, the egg cream was being dispensed by the millions in every drugstore, soda fountain, candy store and delicatessen in the five boroughs of New York City. The great thing about egg creams is that they don’t last — they should be consumed as soon as they’re made or the milk and seltzer separate and the whole thing goes flat — so no one has ever been able to bottle a real egg cream. I assume that there are still plenty of places in NYC to find a decent egg cream, but if all else fails, try outer Brooklyn. And it’s possible that you can find something called an “egg cream” in Pittsburgh or Des Moines if you really search, but don’t bother. Like pizza, if you’re not in New York City, it’s gonna be a bad joke.

1 comment to Egg cream

  • Bill Schmeer

    All things New York are not Yiddish. All things Yiddish are not Yiddish. Echt, meaning real, genuine, pure (gold), is a German word, as are many Yiddish words–stein (steen) or (stine)–it’s still German.

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