“Don’t get mad, but as the honest to God truth, I’m not that impressed with egg creams.”
This is Nora Miller’s grandfather. He says this in an interview for her short documentary, the sole subject of which is the fountain drink that he thinks is only so-so.
The film’s resident egg cream scholar, Andrew Coe, agrees: “I don’t think egg creams are the best soda fountain drink ever invented. If it’s a hot day, and you want something really refreshing, I go for a lime rickey.”
Why, then, a 15-minute documentary devoted to and named after a not-totally-beloved drink?
Ms. Miller answers this question using historic photos and illustrations, interviews with relatives and soda-jerks, and home video from her own childhood memories of the beverage. Klezmer music plays in the background, guiding us through the emotional highs and lows of the story. As it turns out, the egg cream, though not everyone’s favorite fountain drink, has a lot going on behind the scenes.
For starters, there is no egg and there is no cream in an egg cream. The film’s interviewees are quick to point out its true makeup: milk, chocolate syrup and seltzer water. All this, deftly mixed with a few flicks of the wrist, and the rhythmic clink of a metal spoon against glass to create a high, milky froth.
But more intriguing than the paradox of its name is its particular significance within the history of Jewish American immigrants.
Ms. Miller, a young adult, brings the perspective of a 21st century Jew examining the egg cream for how it places her within the story of her ancestors, specifically their experience in the crowded tenement districts of the lower east side of New York City in the early 20th century. Mr. Coe explains why he thinks the drink was a highlight in Jewish neighborhoods and soda parlors, despite its lukewarm reception now:
“It’s a hot, stifling day on the streets of the lower east side of Manhattan. You need relief… So you order an egg cream, and no matter how dirty the glass is, and no matter how uncomfortable you are, you take that little moment of drinking the egg cream. And that’s the little moment which you treasure for the rest of the day, because that’s the only moment where you really have something good in your life.”
Additional interviews reveal a common nostalgia for the beverage. One man recounts begging his older brothers to make him egg creams as a child, ears always perked for the customary clink-clink of the spoon. Another reveals the sadness he associates with the drink, which he would often buy from a man who mixed it with a sleeve rolled up to reveal tattooed numbers on his forearm. Ms. Miller’s grandpa describes in vivid detail the decaying soda fountain from which his egg creams were frequently pulled, and Ms. Miller herself recalls serving egg creams at her Bat Mitzvah, now years past.
Anyone who connects to their culture through food — especially dishes that are no longer easily accessible — will recognize the sense of nostalgia and emotion that these interviewees associate with the drink. Ms. Miller illustrates how a dish, no matter how unexceptional to consumers today, can be quite meaningful for how it connects people to their history, and the dual sense of loss and belonging that a taste might bring to the surface.
Ovid.tv’s EGG CREAM Explores a Fountain Drink’s Role in Jewish American History
Like its titular subject, Egg Cream feeds your curiosity, but does not totally satisfy, in this writer’s opinion. Ms. Miller scratches the surface enough to reveal some very compelling insights about the beverage’s cultural and historical significance. You may feel, though, that the ending comes a little too quickly, and that you're left wanting a more in depth look.
Still, the film serves well as an intro into further research — about the egg cream, Jewish culture at large, or other dishes that have specific cultural significance.
Egg Cream is recommended for those who enjoy learning about history through a food-specific lens. It’s also recommended to those who connect to their own culture through food (whether that be Jewish or otherwise). The memories and emotions that these egg cream enthusiasts associate with the drink will likely resonate, and perhaps impart a greater understanding of the connection you, too, may have with your own cultural history and community.
To watch the film, visit the Ovid.tv page for EGG CREAM.
Images courtesy of Ovid.tv