Welcome to Old Folks Food Week, where we resurrect and celebrate the delicious dishes of yore.
When I think about the chocolate egg cream, a soda-fountain classic, I have visions of Linda Richman from Saturday Night Live’s Coffee Talk sketches: “Grape Nuts contains neither grape, nor nuts. Discuss!” Chocolate egg creams do in fact contain chocolate, but no longer contain egg or cream. So why are they named that? And, to follow up, what actually is in a chocolate egg cream?
In the 19th century, the drink did contain both egg and cream (in addition to the cold seltzer that gives the drink its fizz and the chocolate syrup that gives it its flavor). In the 1860s, the first golden age of the American soda fountain, you could walk into any soda fountain and spot a large bowl of fresh eggs on the counter. Recipe books and drinks manuals for soda-fountain operators boasted thick chapters on raw-egg-based drinks.
“They were considered very filling, very delicious. They were really thick and had a unique texture. A lot of people would visit the soda fountain on their lunch breaks and these egg drinks would sort of fill you up,” says Laurel Burmeister, who is the historic programs, outreach, and collections manager at Philadelphia’s The Franklin Fountain. Distributors who supplied soda fountains with ingredients instructed: “You should have egg drinks at your soda fountain because they’re very filling and looked upon as liquid lunches.”
But by the turn of the 20th century, the soda-fountain business had become a competitive one, especially in population-dense places like New York City. Five cents was the expected price for a soda drink, and many proprietors found that using fresh eggs and cream made chocolate egg creams unprofitable.
Enter Herman Fox.
Burmeister tells me that Fox, a syrups maker, created his U-Bet syrups around 1904. (They’re still used today at many of America’s remaining soda fountains.) The revolutionized the egg-cream game by creating frothy, rich sodas without the need for an egg. Soda-fountain owners realized this was a huge cost savings, and syrup-plus-seltzer-plus-milk became the standard chocolate egg cream recipe.
It’s a recipe that’s nostalgic for many of our grandparents’ generation, who experienced the second golden age of the soda fountain in the 1950s. Soda fountains enjoyed a resurgence during Prohibition and afterwards, as they were considered an alcohol-free, wholesome venue for a date. And as proof that everything old is new again, several retro soda fountains and restaurants like The Franklin Fountain, and Russ & Daughters, B&H Dairy, and Shopsin’s in NYC.
What’s the enduring appeal, besides nostalgia?
“Just the creaminess,” Burmeister says. “People like that texture in their mouths.”
The Franklin Fountain’s New York Egg Cream
- 3 oz. whole milk or milk substitute
- 6 oz. cold seltzer
- 1.5 oz. Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup
Pour milk into a 12-ounce glass; pour in half the seltzer slowly until it foams. Add syrup, stirring carefully so as not to dissipate the foam. Pour in remaining seltzer.