Watching him, I knew right away this was going to be all wrong. In every way. Wrong cup—paper, not glass—wrong syrup—pumped out of some monster container—wrong proportions—at least a half cup of milk—and wrong technique. He used the soda dispenser (the kind they have in movie theaters) and then grabbed a teaspoon to give the drink a pretty lame stir. He placed it in front of me in all its gross, plastic-lidded, paper cup glory and asked me if I was ready to order. Hmmm, I wondered, should I even bother, given this disastrous start to my walk down memory lane? Well, OK, I will. I’ll have a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. Fingers crossed, hoping for the best as I sipped my faux egg cream, wondering why I had made the two-hour hike to the ends of the earth for this; I’m in the Rockaways, Queens, the ancestral home of our family egg cream.
Years ago, on an island in the Mediterranean, my mother announced that she was going to make us a “special” summer drink called an egg cream. The afternoon was sweltering as usual—summer lasted about six months a year on the little rock we called home—and I think the weather contributed to my mom’s nostalgia for her childhood spent living by the beach and homesickness for the U.S.; she decided to make a treat that reminded her of both.
Naturally, we didn’t get it. “I don’t like my eggs creamy,” whined my little brother. This was absolutely true; only five years old, he knew the difference between a three- and four-minute egg to the second and would refuse to eat the runnier one. “Don’t fuss. There’s no egg here,” said my uncharacteristically patient mother. She dug around in the fridge and produced a bottle of Schweppes club soda and the milk and told me to grab the chocolate syrup and some glasses. And she made our very first egg cream. But it was a Maltese egg cream, not a New York egg cream, and something got lost in translation. We got the idea, sort of. It was chocolate-flavored but in a faint, milky way, with just a hint of fizz. She looked at it rather sadly, stirring and stirring, but it didn’t change. I think the club soda might have been a bit flat. Peter (my older brother) gulped it down, declared it tasted like “weak chocolate milk, what’s the point?” and bolted out in a hurry, the screen door slamming behind him like a condemnation. Personally, I liked it.
The problem was the tools, not the craftswoman. My mother had been schooled by an expert—my grandpa Abe. At the age of 10, she had proudly stood behind a marble-topped counter, working the register and occasionally the soda fountain in my grandfather’s candy store in the Rockaways where he would labor all day whipping up milkshakes, ice cream sodas, and—most popular of all—egg creams.
The city was once full of these ubiquitous neighborhood spots selling candy, cigars and cigarettes, newspapers, comic books, and magazines, as well as sandwiches and drinks at a small counter. You could grab a pack of Wrigley’s and a cigarillo, make a little small talk along the lines of “Shouldn’t you be in school young lady?” with the cashier (in this case, my mom) and be on your way. Or, if you had the time and a spare quarter or two, you could plunk yourself down on one of the dark red leather-topped spinning stools for a soda respite.
In the summertime, a chocolate egg cream hit all the right notes, being lighter than an ice cream soda and much cheaper since it was essentially just a bit of milk and syrup and a lot of seltzer. It was easy to make, provided you knew the right technique. Serve a bad egg cream and you could kiss your summer profits goodbye since there were a million other candy stores to choose from. The keys: proportion and proficiency.
Certain elements have to be just right in order to achieve the perfect egg cream. Many New Yorkers are not fans simply because they’ve had a sub-par drink, made by an indifferent soda jerk. Dare I say a guy who makes a crappy egg cream is just a plain old jerk. But get it right and you are in a little bubble (no pun intended) of heaven for the minute it takes to gulp it down. Egg creams are impossible to just sip.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have inherited knowledge with regard to the not-so-secret recipe. I may not have learned how to conjure up ancient family dishes from the proverbial grandmother in the kitchen—Grandma Helen did not cook—but I do have the keys to our egg cream kingdom. And my mom says it’s OK to give out copies.
This is not a time to worry about nutrition; you have to use whole milk. Then there’s the chocolate syrup, which is, ideally, Fox’s U-bet Original, developed over 100 years ago in Brooklyn with soda drinks like the egg cream in mind. It’s not as sweet as other syrups, with a certain mineral tang that partners beautifully with seltzer. And for all you original Coke fans, the kosher version of U-bet is made with real sugar. It may sound obvious but the seltzer should be seltzer. True New Yorkers don’t drink club soda. The best way to dispense the seltzer is to use a soda siphon or, at the very least, a soda gun. It’s the pressure that’s key here. Certain implements are also necessary: a long, ice tea-style spoon, a tall, chilled 16-ounce glass, and a dinner knife.
Ok. Ready? Loosen up your wrists and you’re good to go. Pour an inch and a half of very cold milk into the glass. Then squeeze in about two tablespoons of Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup. If you are a chocoholic you can use a bit more but don’t deviate from these proportions too much or it’s just flat chocolate milk. Now, and this is key, stick the long spoon in the glass and start streaming the seltzer against the bowl of the spoon. You are attempting to aerate the milk into a creamy foam, topped with a frothy head. When the froth reaches the top of the glass and spills over a bit stop adding seltzer; there’ll be some carbonated fluff and tiny bubbles trying to drift off into the ether and this is where the knife comes in. Use the flat side and scrape it across to flick away some of the overflow. Then, while stirring to emulsify the ingredients, add a bit more seltzer to top off the drink. The end result should be a glass with an inch of velvety café au lait-colored foam topping pale, effervescent chocolate milk, and a dense little pool of leftover syrup at the bottom. Stick a straw in and enjoy, stirring in that last bit of syrup as you slurp.
There used to be an ongoing debate between the boroughs about the order of the ingredients. Supposedly in Brooklyn—where they lay claim to inventing the egg cream but so does the Lower East Side—the syrup is squeezed in after you foam up the milk, resulting in a pure white topping to your drink. My mother was appalled at this, telling me that Grandpa Abe knew exactly what he was doing since his training involved a lot of grunt work at Berger’s Delicatessen in Far Rockaway. Ok mom, relax. It’s just a theory.
My grilled cheese arrives. I’ve been spoiled by my local Manhattan diner’s seven-grain bread, real cheddar, and a way with the grill top resulting in the perfect sandwich: crispy on the outside with a filling that oozes in just the right way. What I get instead is a soggy “wheat bread” and American cheese disaster with an insipid slice of pink tomato, a plastic container of very dry coleslaw and a limp pickle spear. Just. So. Sad.
The joint had clearly changed hands. There were old black and white framed pictures on the walls depicting an earlier iteration of the restaurant as it proudly stood sandwiched between the Rockaway Beach station and a bar, lots of men in suits and hats alongside big black 40s gangster cars parked in front; this particular Saturday most people were in shorts, tank tops, and sandals. We were in the midst of a spring heatwave.
Looking around the small cafe where locals seemed to be happy with their stacks of chocolate chip pancakes and western omelets (smothered in ketchup, just the way my grandpa ate his eggs, and everything else) I thought about the passage of time as it applies to food and drink. Sixty years ago I’d have been served white bread but the egg cream would’ve been perfect. I choked down the sandwich since I was really hungry after the long trip, left behind half the egg cream, paid the bill and left. All in all, a $9 disappointment.
To try to salvage the outing I walked along the boulevard the few blocks to the beach, passing an odd mix of old and new: a dreary-looking Chinese restaurant with a “Grade Pending” poster, a dollar store, the ubiquitous souvenir shop full of dusty shell paraphernalia and lighthouse magnets; but also a trendy vintage boutique, a surf shop, a bistro, and a gastropub.
The boardwalk has been rebuilt with concrete just in case another hurricane like Sandy—which devastated the Rockaways—hits. There’s hardly anyone around, it’s windy and the waves are rough; I spot a couple of surfers struggling with their boards. It’s quiet but come Memorial Day, beach bars will open and the Rockaway shuttle will be back in business, bussing in hipsters from Williamsburg and Bushwick for $25 round-trip. It’s doubtful they’ll be looking for anything as tame as a genuine egg cream. Which is a good thing since it doesn’t look like there will be anyone like Grandpa Abe to make it the right way.