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February 19, 2024

The Economics of the Egg Cream

By Harvey Silverman

The Egg Cream, properly made, is a simple drink. In a plain unadorned soda glass deliver a couple of pumps of chocolate syrup, pour in an equal amount of whole milk, and add seltzer generated from a black handled gooseneck dispenser; the powerful stream helps combine the ingredients. A few brisk stirs with a long-handled spoon completes the drink.

At least that is how I remember my grandfather, standing behind the counter at the small Manhattan “candy store” he and my grandmother owned and operated for more than forty years, did it. In the 1950s when my boyhood self visited I think the price was ten cents.

The Egg Cream was a fountain drink unavailable at my home in Massachusetts. But a visit to my grandparents meant I could have what seemed to be unlimited (until my folks said “enough!”) ice cream and candy and especially that – to me – exotic beverage. The flavor of that drink, perhaps made the more tasty because of the association with my grandparents and my own childhood innocence, never left my memory.

In my late sixties, five decades later, Egg Cream long deprived, I was brought by my adult son to Union Market in Washington DC. He was excited to lead me to a fountain that served Egg Creams. An opportunity for me to enjoy this delightful drink from so very many years ago. It arrived in a fancy fountain glass with a huge head of foam. Something was not right. That was not at all the way my grandparents served it. The drink had been upscaled, I thought, appropriate perhaps for patrician New Yorkers or somebody from the upper West Side but it was not the plebian common folk Egg Cream of my youth. It tasted fine but the appearance prompted me to carry on a bit and I suppose my protestations created something of a modest scene.

***

That my grandparents were in the position of selling Egg Creams had not been part of the plan. My grandfather had been trained in Europe as a tailor; sometime after he came to America, met and married my grandmother, and had the son who became my father, he and another man began a business in New York to produce children’s clothes. The business failed in the Depression of 1920-21.

My grandparents borrowed $2000 from a rich aunt and bought the store. For all the subsequent years fourteen-hour days began when each morning my grandfather, well before 7AM, went to the store to handle the newspapers that had been earlier delivered. Each of the many different newspapers that were published back then in New York arrived in a separate bundle tied up with a length of inexpensive coarse rope and needed to be unbundled and placed on a large wooden stand which stood outside the door of the store. My grandparents saved the rope.

Then the store – a tiny slot-shaped establishment with a fountain in too narrow a space to allow for fountain seats, the fountain itself long enough for just two or perhaps three people to stand – opened for business selling fountain sundries, penny candies, magazines, and the like. Seven days a week. Never a day off. Penny candies sold for a penny, newspapers a penny or two; their life together carried on a cent or two at a time.

The ten cents that they received for an Egg Cream (and doubtless much less than that in the 1920s) had a lot of work to do. That dime needed to pay for the ingredients that made the drink, the rent on the store, the store’s equipment and fixtures, the electric and gas bill, taxes, insurance, licenses, and that rich aunt’s loan which they paid off in full. After that my grandparents could think about food for the family, clothes, and other necessities. Luxuries must have been very few.

***

In December, 1963, I travelled by bus with eight high school classmates to New York. We were ostensibly attending a three-day convention of our high school fraternity; the real reason was that the New York drinking age was eighteen.

One early afternoon, sobered up, I convinced my best friend, Dave, that we two should visit my grandparents’ store and get an Egg Cream. They had not been told I would be in The City and I wanted to see them. The store was on First Avenue, our cheap hotel on Eighth Avenue, so an easy walk of seven blocks I thought. Except the blocks between Avenues in New York are much longer than those between Streets. I did not know that. I also was unfamiliar with the unnumbered Avenues we would need to cross such as Madison and Park. An easy stroll turned into a mile and a half hike for hungover marchers. Dave asked if we could just take a cab but I repeatedly refused.

Finally we made it to the store, walked in, and surprised my grandparents. They were of course delighted to see me. I explained why we were supposedly in town and that I had promised Dave that they made “the best Egg Creams in New York.” We each were treated to the iconic drink and after a brief visit it was time to head back.

“Can we please take a cab now,” Dave pleaded. I agreed, particularly as it was beginning to snow. But with the storm no cab would stop for us and we were forced to walk back, returning to our hotel cold and wet and tired. It made for a good story that Dave repeated many times over the years; I like to think the accumulated pleasure he got from his dramatic recounting of my miscalculation of distance, my refusal to get a cab, and his misery outweighed his temporary suffering.

Just a couple of years later my grandparents closed the store when the landlord informed them of a large increase in rent. They were well past retirement age by then.

The Egg Cream I enjoyed with Dave that day was last one my grandparents ever gave me.

***

Back to the 1950s. When we were ready to return home after a visit my grandmother would give me a ten dollar bill. It was passed to me “in secret” even though my folks knew it was happening. Now so many years later I contemplate that ten dollars and imagine it in ten-cent Egg Creams. One hundred Egg Creams needed to be sold. One hundred! Thinking about my grandparents, Abe and Helen, often brings the Egg Cream to mind as I recall them with love, appreciation, respect, and gratitude.






First appeared in Meat for Tea; the Valley Review

Image by Lkapit: CC BY-SA 4.0

Article © Harvey Silverman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2024-02-12
1 Reader Comments
Bernie Pilarski
02/13/2024
06:44:51 PM
Delightful as always.
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