When I was 13, my family drove from New Jersey to Florida. Curiously, one of my most vivid memories of that trip was something I ate in a roadside diner in Georgia. Pointing down at the unfamiliar, deep-fried lumps accompanying my meal, I exclaimed, “What on earth are those?”
An older man at the next table chuckled and, in a Georgia drawl impossible to do justice to in print, said, “Them there’s hush puppies.”
That was when I first became aware that different parts of the country had delicacies they called their own. In the ensuing years I discovered Philly cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, jambalaya in New Orleans, tacos to die for in Southern California, lobster rolls in Maine, key lime pie in the Florida Keys. And on and on.
The question lingers: Why don’t these dishes taste as good outside their points of origin? In other words, why can’t one get a real New York bagel in Cincinnati? Why doesn’t Southern barbecue garnered in, say, Connecticut taste anywhere near as good as it does in Savannah?
This was my thought recently when I rediscovered a culinary regionalism from my childhood neck of the woods just outside Manhattan. I recall a particularly tasty treat my father took great pleasure in preparing for me: an egg cream. Let me explain.
First of all, it’s a drink. Second, it contains neither eggs nor cream. The concoction is so simple to prepare, and the product is so delicious, that I don’t know how I could have neglected it all these years. Now that I’ve recovered the memory, it all comes flooding back to me: my father in the kitchen, arranging the few ingredients on the table as the 10-year-old me licked his chops in anticipation, my eyes as big as saucers.
“Now watch,” he said as he took a tall soda glass and added about a half-inch of chocolate syrup. Then came an inch of milk. Then the crowning touch: He filled the glass with fresh seltzer while briskly stirring. The goal was a thick head of foam in which a straw could stand. Result: ambrosia. My dad looked on approvingly as I took my first draft, anointing my upper lip with a perfectly symmetrical foam mustache.
But where on earth did the name “egg cream” come from? My research revealed mostly hearsay, but hearsay around which there is considerable agreement: The drink likely originated among Eastern European Jewish immigrants to New York in the late 1800s. The word “echt” in both German and Yiddish means “authentic” or “pure.” The “cream” part seems to refer to the intense, thick foam that arises only under the influence of absolutely fresh seltzer. Even so, like shrimp gumbo in New Orleans, the egg cream is the greater New York metropolitan area’s own specialty. I have never, ever encountered one outside this region of the country.
The result of all this is that I now keep ample supplies of chocolate syrup, milk (preferably whole), and plain seltzer on hand. Lest I should grow too fond of a good thing, I have limited myself to one egg cream per week, and how I long for Friday evening when I whip up heaven’s own soda, watching as a childhood memory precipitates in front of my eyes before it makes the long, sweet trip down my gullet.
I can’t emphasize enough both the joy of making an egg cream and the ecstasy of consuming it in a New York minute. If one waits too long, the head disappears and the drink goes flat. In this light, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I found, on the web, a company that sells, of all things, bottled egg creams.