2¢ Plain

My Dad may have made the best egg creams in the world.

I don’t know; I haven’t tasted every egg cream in the world.

In the early 1930s, Dad worked at a soda fountain in a candy store at the corner of Saratoga and Riverdale, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. His creations were guaranteed to raise a thick head, a foamy mustache … and a wide smile. Dad’s forte was smiles.

What is this legendary potion that contains no eggs and no cream? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a sweetened drink made with milk or cream and other ingredients; especially, a drink consisting of milk, a flavoring syrup, and soda water.”

They are quick to point out that “the definition which doubtless will be unsatisfying to some, as the egg cream partisans (many of whom are New Yorkers, particularly Brooklynites, of a certain age) have a far more rigid definition of what makes an egg cream.”

If the ingredients are a matter of controversy, the origin of the egg cream is a New York turf war. Some claim it was invented in the Bronx. I happen to be second-generation Brownsville, Brooklyn — a trolley-car ride from Ebbets Field. To me, the only good thing to come from the Bronx is my wife.

Credible sources trace the origin of the egg cream to Manhattan’s Lower East Side where, The New Yorker reported, “Louis (Pop) Auster … may or may not have invented the drink around 1890.” His recipe remained a family secret.

An alternative origin story has the egg cream created by Herman Fox, who invented Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup in his home in Brownsville, Brooklyn (applause, please) around 1900. (FYI: Fox’s original recipe included powdered milk. Now, the OU certifies the syrup as kosher and pareve.)

By 1904, the egg cream had become part of Brooklyn legend. As Elliot Willensky wrote in When Brooklyn Was the World — 1920-1957, “A candy store minus an egg cream, in Brooklyn at least, was as difficult to conceive of as the Earth without gravity.”

Whatever the origin, the rich, frothy elixir became the unofficial drink of New York nostalgists.

But the secret active ingredient in egg creams wasn’t the syrup. It was the fizz. The fizz created the foam. And that came from the seltzer. I’m not talking wimpy-bubble Perrier sparkling water. I’m talking real New York grepsworthy seltzer.

(Greps is Yiddish for burp. But not a baby burp. It’s a cathartic bloatbusting belch, usually followed by a contented “Ahh” and, in polite company, a de rigueur “Excuse me.”)

If you’re concerned about carbon emissions, please skip the rest of this article and go have some spring water. But just be aware: Most spring water is sold in plastic bottles — a byproduct of fossil fuel.

Harry Golden, editor and publisher of The Carolina Israelite, reminisced about his New York childhood: “The entire East Side civilization was addicted to seltzer. … You bought a drink from a man behind a marble counter at any of the hundreds of soda-water stands. … A small glass cost a penny — ‘Give me a small plain.’ No syrup. Syrup cost another penny. For a large glass, you said, ‘Give me for two cents plain.’”

The name stuck and seltzer is still known as 2¢ plain.

William Safire traced the German word seltzer to “mineral water from Nieder Selters, Prussia, called Selterser Wasser.”

Foodies consider seltzer déclassé because it conjures up the image of the old-fashioned siphon bottles with the trigger-like lever that was used as a squirt gun in slapstick comedy routines. In an upscale restaurant, Safire once ordered “two dollars plain,” but only got a blank stare.

Joseph Priestly, a British scientist who worked on properties of gas, developed an apparatus to carbonate water and produce a beverage similar to mineral water. He thought the artificially carbonated drink had medicinal properties. Two centuries later, Jews pay homage to Priestly’s theory with post-cholent seltzer.

The drink spread in the 19th century when Johann Schweppe patented a way to mass-produce carbonated water. Soon, Jewish entrepreneurs in Germany and Russia began mass-marketing seltzer. The drink — kosher, pareve and refreshing — became a favorite in Jewish homes from Europe to New York.

If chicken soup was “Jewish penicillin,” seltzer became “Jewish champagne.” Alfred Kazin praised seltzer’s role as a low-cost indulgence, with concomitant health benefits: “Seltzer is still the poor Jew’s dinner wine, a mild luxury infinitely prized above the water out of the faucets; there can be few families in Brownsville that still do not take a case of it every week. It sparkles, it can be mixed with sweet jellies and syrups; besides, the water in Europe was often unclean.”

Ask 10 people for their favorite Jewish joke and one is sure to come up with this classic: “A Jew is hit by a car. A paramedic on the scene asks, ‘Are you comfortable?’ The Jew answers, ‘I make a living.’”

There’s another, less known, version: On a summer day in New York, an elderly Jewish man faints from the heat. A doctor checks him and says, “Get this man water.” The old man feebly says, “Make that seltzer.” n

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.

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