The Grammarphobia Blog

Who put the egg in egg cream?

Q: Why is an egg cream called an “egg cream”? My parents had a candy store with a soda fountain in Brooklyn. I started making egg creams at age three, while standing on the ice cream freezer in the store and reaching over to the fountain handles. There was no egg in our egg creams!

A: The modern incarnation of the egg cream has neither egg nor cream – just chocolate syrup, seltzer, and milk. So why do we call the drink an “egg cream”?

There are quite a few theories about the origin of the name, some eggier and creamier than others.

A common eggless explanation is that the word “egg” here is a corruption of the Yiddish echt or ekht, meaning genuine or real. So an egg cream was the genuine article. That seems a bit far-fetched to me.

Although the origin of the name is uncertain, the evidence tends to suggest that egg creams may once have been made with eggs and cream.

The story most often mentioned involves Louis Auster, who in the 1890s opened the first of his family’s several candy shops/soda fountains on New York’s Lower East Side.

Many egg-cream authorities – I wouldn’t be surprised if NYU has an endowed chair in the subject – consider Auster the creator or popularizer of the beverage.

After the New York Herald Tribune ran an article entitled “The Egg Cream Mystique” in 1964, Louis Auster’s son Emanuel replied with a letter to the editor.

“Allow me to enlighten you on a few facts,” he wrote. “We are in business since 1892. We started in at Stanton-Lewis Streets on the lower East Side. About 1900, my father originated egg cream chocolate. We made all our syrups.”

He went on: “Sodas in those days were 2 cents a 15 oz. glass. or 1 cent you got seltzer with a little syrup on top. Chocolate was 2 cents, and egg cream (pure, cream and eggs, proportioned in a batch of syrup, not an egg to each glass) was 3 cents.”

(I am indebted to Barry Popik for quoting Emanuel Auster’s letter on his Big Apple website.)

Did the original Auster’s egg cream really have egg and cream, as Emanuel said? Perhaps, but not every member of the Auster family agreed with him.

Stanley Auster, a grandson of Louis, got his two cents in when he was interviewed for Jeff Kisseloff’s You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890s to World War II (1989).

“The name egg cream was really a misnomer,” he said. “People thought there was cream it in it, and they would like to think there was egg in it because egg meant something that was really good and expensive. There was never an egg, and there was never any cream.”

Stanley ought to know. He was given the family’s secret recipe when he was about 13 years old, according to the interview, and made egg creams for Auster’s right through college.

In two articles in the journal American Speech, however, David Shulman provided additional evidence that egg creams may indeed once have had both egg and cream in them.

In a 1987 article, Shulman cited an egg-cream recipe in W. A. Bonham’s Modern Guide for Soda Dispensers (1896) that called for both cream and eggs.

And in a 1995 article, he insisted that “the original drink with that name did have egg and cream in it.” He added that the Oxford English Dictionary had accepted the results of his research on the subject.

The OED does in fact now define “egg cream” as “any of various kinds of rich sweet drink made orig. with eggs and milk or cream and more recently with milk, soda water, and flavouring.”

The OED’s earliest published reference for the term “egg cream” used in reference to a beverage is from 1906, half a dozen years after Louis Auster was said to have created the drink.

In closing, I’d like to quote a few lines from Lou Reed’s song “Egg Cream”:

When I was a young man, no bigger than this
A chocolate egg cream was not to be missed.
Some u bet’s chocolate syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk,
You stir it up into a heady fro, tasted just like silk.

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