Day Three • 12 Sips of Brooklyn
THE SCENE: A QUIET NIGHT ON A BATTLEFIELD half a globe away, a harmonica warbles mournfully. The hard-bitten combat veteran turns to the embedded reporter: “What do you miss most from home, Brooklyn?” “Sarge, when I get stateside, I’m gonna grab me a girl and my dog and get the biggest egg cream in town.” Well, maybe it didn’t go quite like that, but Phil Scott’s essay of return from Afghanistan nails that sense of longing for a Brooklyn of dream and legend. The boisterous city of today jostles with an older Brooklyn of memory that breaks through when you least expect.
A fair chunk of my childhood was spent as an urchin roaming the city on 15 cent subway tokens bought with nickels scrounged from pay phones. I often sojourned in Brooklyn, so when I started to work and play here as an adult, eventually came a hunt for the drink of my childhood, the ambrosia, the very essence of Kings County—the chocolate egg cream.
Craft beers and pour-over coffees are fine beverages but are essentially imports and upstarts; for artisanal beverages, the granddaddy has to be the egg cream. Its origin is shrouded in legend and many lay claim to patrimony, but no one doubts its Brooklyn DNA (a straightforward description is found in Fix the Pumps by Darcy O’Neil, a history of the soda fountain). A simple drink which contains neither egg nor cream, it is long on seltzer (cheap) and parsimonious in milk and chocolate syrup (costly), suited to the working class city of the early 20th century. The craft is in the construction, detailed in this post by Jay Keller. Making an egg cream is testimony to a time when soda jerk was a job and required more skill than pushing a button to dispense prepackaged milk shake. The foamy head that is the glory of the egg cream is achieved with application of technique with spigot and spoon.
So, this fall I took up the hunt to find my dream egg cream. First stop was Brooklyn Farmacy, a gem of an eating place at the corner of Henry and Sackett in Carroll Gardens. The tin ceiling and the wooden cabinetry are straight from the early 20th century. The store, an old pharmacy, was closed and left virtually untouched for decades until reopened in 2010 by Peter Freeman and Gia Giasullo, a brother-sister team that like to wear T-shirts proudly proclaiming themselves as “Jerk.” Such chutzpah!
Brooklyn Farmacy has taken a stand for authenticity, with fine attention to details. They use a carbonator and spigot to dispense the soda water and their chocolate syrup is the quintessential Fox’s U-bet. The store demonstrates a commitment to locally sourced and artisanal foods with a strong showing in Brooklyn products, including serving Brooklyn Cured ham in their grilled ham and cheese sandwich, and stocking many other small-batch products for sale.
My childhood obsession drove me to the chocolate egg cream, while my companions chose vanilla and maple (both were excellent, and the last appealed to my Canadian roots, despite its sacrilegious blend). Gia talked to us knowledgeably about the drink, noting that the egg cream must be made with a carbonator and served quickly, as the foam starts to disappear rapidly when the drink sits on the counter. She also eschews the drinking straw: “The straw pulls up the material at the bottom. It is better to drink it straight down so you taste each layer starting with the foam.” She also touted the obvious health benefits: “An egg cream has the same number of calories as a slice of buttered toast” with far less sugar than a similarly sized cola drink. Of note, the Farmacy charged the least for their egg cream: $2.50. As I remember it, the price of the egg creams I used to drink were about equal in cost to the subway ride to get to them, so the Farmacy’s price appears historically accurate.
Next up was Tom’s Restaurant, the friendly anti-slick breakfast palace on Washington Avenue. Tom’s has an authentic feel of continuity with the past. And the egg cream was near-classic (they also use U-bet, for one) in taste and texture. The real problem, Tom… Tom… why the whipped cream on top? It killed the start of the egg cream experience—nose to foam spray. Are you doing it to justify the $3.50 price (nearly 3 times the inflation-adjusted price from 1962)? Tom’s: great for breakfast, ditch the whipped cream.
Finally, an R train ride away (what I knew as the RR on the BMT line, children, for historical accuracy) in Bay Ridge, we tested the egg cream at Hinsch’s. I have to say I loved Hinsch’s the place; it really kicked up the nostalgia meter recreating the early ’60s of my first Brooklyn experience. On that, Hinsch’s scored; its egg cream was less than it could have been. The counterman was deft and skilled, but the soda issued from the standard soda gun seen in every bar and lunch counter these days and it felt wrong. I had planned my journey for what I hoped was to be the Mecca of fountains and was underwhelmed. Ah well, I will return to Hinsch’s, but will stick with the milk shakes.
Brooklyn Farmacy, I salute you. May your egg cream reign in the Brooklyn of dream and memory. For now, I gotta go grab Phil—there have to be more memorable Brooklyn egg creams out there and I must find them.
513 Henry Street, Carroll Gardens
782 Washington Avenue, Prospect Heights
8518 5th Avenue, Bay Ridge
Photos by Basia Hellwig; Bruce Campbell (Tom’s, window menu, recipe). Date stamp typographic design by Joy Makon Design. The font is Bauhaus, by Ed Benguiat and Victor Caruso, ITC, 1975.