Growing up in Central Pennsylvania in the 1980s, I had limited access to quintessential New York Jewish cuisine. My bagels were from Pepperidge Farm, my Reuben sandwiches from Friendly’s, and my egg creams… nonexistent. But thanks to my imaginary friend, I knew what egg creams were, and because her descriptions were so vivid, I swear I could taste every sweet, sparkly sip. This “friend” was Harriet M. Welsch, better known as “Harriet the Spy,” one of my favorite protagonists in all children’s literature.
Harriet’s world was completely foreign to me: She lived in a brownstone in New York City, had a housekeeper and was allowed to roam the streets along her “spy route.” How Harriet and I were similar, however, were that we were both women with specific gustatory tastes. She had a predilection for tomato sandwiches (for years I harbored a similar monomaniacal bias for baloney with mayo) and when she got thirsty, her refreshment of choice was the egg cream, which she enjoyed almost exclusively at her favorite luncheonette. I loved to imagine Harriet sipping her egg cream, fueling herself for further escapades in Big Apple espionage, and generally flourishing as a fabulous adolescent flâneuse.
One of the most iconic beverages in the Jewish gastronomic landscape, the frothy, refreshing egg cream is made by combining milk, seltzer or carbonated water, and chocolate syrup. It’s likely the term “egg cream” came into parlance among Eastern European Jews in New York City (with the “egg” being a derivation of the Yiddish “echt,” meaning “real or authentic,” and cream coming from “keem,” meaning “sweetness” — i.e. “a good sweet [drink]”).
The origins of the drink itself are murkier. Some assert Yiddish actor Boris Thomashevsky unwittingly introduced the egg cream to the Big Apple in the 1880s when he requested a “chocolat et crème” from a barista who, being unfamiliar with the Parisian drink, improvised with soda water and chocolate. The more widely accepted origin story is that proffered by the Auster family, which owned a handful of candy stores in New York City and claims its patriarch Louis (Pop) Auster invented the drink by accident around the turn of the century.
Regardless, the egg cream has inspired generations of real (and imaginary, Harriet, natch) ardent enthusiasts who are always quick to remind you of the two most important features of the drink: first, it contains neither egg nor cream and second, it must, must, be made with Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup. Manufactured since 1900 by H. Fox & Company in Brooklyn, Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup is made with real cocoa powder, which many cite as the reason for its superior quality and necessary inclusion as the syrup in a proper egg cream.
But here’s a dirty, delicious little secret: The egg cream can also be made with other flavored syrups. And who better to remind us of this fact than one of my other literary heroes, Jesse from “The Babysitter’s Club,” who savors an egg cream with her paramour Quint on vacation in NYC:
“Quint ordered an egg cream. I changed my mind and ordered an egg cream, too. In case you’ve never tasted one, an egg cream is a wonderful drink. It’s made of soda and milk and vanilla or chocolate syrup. (Surprisingly, it does not have any eggs in it).”
Just as on “Seinfeld,” Elaine and Jerry were flummoxed then thrilled upon hearing that babka comes in cinnamon as well as chocolate, and that the former is in no way “lesser,” I experienced my own epicurean epiphany upon learning the egg cream could exist in multiple, equally delectable, iterations.
Fittingly, in addition to chocolate, Fox’s U-Bet syrup comes in “chocolate sundae” (thicker, with a deeper, darker cocoa flavor), coffee, vanilla and strawberry (and sugar-free chocolate but we won’t talk about that), laying the groundwork for a cornucopia of egg cream confections. These variants are not the ugly stepsisters of the OG chocolate, but rather but-just-as-fun, frothy family members of the egg cream clan. Some of my favorite underappreciated egg cream creations include the mocha (U-Bet coffee syrup with chocolate milk and seltzer); coconut (U-Bet vanilla syrup with coconut milk and toasted coconut seltzer); and strawberries and cream (U-Bet strawberry syrup with milk and vanilla seltzer).
Given their inherent versatility, Fox’s U-Bet syrups should not be limited to the egg cream. All syrup flavors naturally lend themselves to sundae, parfaits, milkshakes and other ice cream concoctions, but they also can be used in baked goods. Fox’s U-Bet officially sanctions using the syrup to make brownies and blondies, but as a general rule, you can swap water or milk for syrup in most cookie, bar, or cake recipes for an added dimension of flavor and an enhanced moist texture. You can also bet on Fox’s syrups to enhance savory dishes, like in meat marinades.
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but by stepping into the fantastical worlds of my friends Harriet and Jesse, I learned the facts with regards to the egg cream. Specifically, that chocolate does not necessarily reign supreme and Fox’s U-Bet, by quietly offering a spectrum of syrups, tacitly agrees with me.