It would seem we’ve tracked down one of the city’s greatest paradoxes: an egg cream contains neither egg nor cream. So what are they? Why are they so delicious? We turned to some of the best egg cream makers in town for answers — and we ended up getting a pretty great history lesson taboot.
The story of Brooklyn Farmacy will resonate with anyone with a taste for history. Such is the story of 513 Henry Street. When brother and sister team Peter Freeman and Gia Giasullo happened upon their space on 513 Henry Street, it had been abandoned for quite some time – but that didn’t mean it was empty. A peek through the window revealed a cluttered collection of decades past. But as Gia and Peter dug further, they revealed a vibrant history underneath the rubble. “When we opened in 2010, the place had been shut down for about 14 years,” Gia says. “It wasn’t boarded up, but it was so packed with stuff in here that there was just a little pathway through.”
Legend has it that Longo’s, the apothecary that occupied the building in the 1920’s, closed up shop when one of the family’s younger sons was caught running guns out of the back. “Effectively, the place got shut down,” Gia says. “But nobody ever really moved out. So when the other owner bought it, also a family pharmacist – also a bit of a wayward son – the Longos had never really moved out, so all of the bottles that you see, everything was still here.” She points to the many shelves of visibly aged bottles and trinkets that line the shelves inside Brooklyn Farmacy today.
This new owner would also add to the curiosity that had begun to develop around 513 Henry Street. His interests leaned toward homeopathy before its time, attracting intrigue from puzzled neighbors. “He opened up for a little bit, then closed, then opened and this went on for almost 20 years,” Gia says. “He would kind of come and go — sometimes it was open and sometimes it wasn’t, so the spot became a mystery.” In the early 90s, he shut down the pharmacy for good, again leaving behind many of the store’s supplies. “He wasn't’ a collector, but he was a hoarder,” Gia says.
So when Gia’s brother, Peter, landed a lease in the apartment upstairs in 2009, the downstairs portion of the building was virtually untouched. Peter quickly befriended the enigmatic old pharmacist and told him about his dream to reincarnate the relic as a soda fountain. “There was something that resonated with him about having a soda fountain here,” Gia says. “And it was an idea my brother presented to him and so he let my brother come in and start to clean things out." According to Peter, the soda fountain was a natural addition to the space, since the fizzy drinks we enjoy today were actually born at pharmacies. “[The FDA] had made it so that only pharmacists were able to administer seltzer,” Gia says. “So it wasn’t a big huge leap to have the pharmacists start to add a little sweetness to their seltzer.”
Together, Gia and Peter continued to put in elbow grease to make Brooklyn Farmacy a reality. Five summers later and you’ll still find the place bustling at all hours of the day with local regulars of all ages. Over the past five years, Brooklyn Farmacy continues to draw in members of the community sharing their personal connections to the city’s soda fountains — so much so that Gia and Peter were asked to write a book featuring their popular recipes and a collection of fizzy tales. “That was when we realized that we had really tapped into something,” Gia says. “We realized that we hadn’t actually opened up a new place, we’d opened up an old place. It’s a place that people walk in and say ‘my parents met in a soda fountain,’ ‘my uncle used to own a soda fountain,’ or ‘my family had a pharmacy in Queens.’ It’s a place that people remember and that’s something that we try to honor very much.”
The biggest hit in their book The Soda Fountain has to be the siblings’ rendition of the classic egg cream. “Our father was born in Queens, and the treat in my house was an egg cream,” Gia explains. “It’s easy to make, and it’s one of these sort of cultural iconic drinks that has a lot of history and a lot of mystery — nobody really knows who invented it.” Peter’s theory is that it originated on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, where fresh cow milk, traveling down from herds in the Hudson Valley, wasn’t as attainable as the eggs from Lower Manhattan’s chickens. “The egg cream was probably a dollop on a chocolate soda,” Gia says. “It was sort of the cream of the chicken, but not the cream of the cow. So potentially it did have egg in it originally, egg white.”
Gia and Peter have also made the egg cream one of the stars on their menu in the Farmacy. “One of the things that my brother noticed about Brooklyn, where the Egg cream was so synonymous, is that a lot of kids didn’t know what an egg cream was,” she says. “So he was on a single-man mission to bring it back into the culinary conversation. There’s lots of controversy about what you should add first, and what kind of syrup you should use, but we’re very proud of the fact that we’ve got 10 year olds coming in and ordering egg creams.” With that, we’d say Gia and Peter have completed one very long and tasty mission.
Ready to know how they make their egg creams today? Gia and Peter shared their recipe with us:
THE BROOKLYN EGG CREAM
This is the most traditional of the egg creams, and the one that incites the most heated debate, both on its origins and the methods to make it. It’s a lightly sweetened, bubbly drink that you can enjoy anytime (and which has about as many calories as a slice of buttered toast).
1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (3 ounces) cold whole milk
3⁄4 cup (6 ounces) plain cold seltzer
3 tablespoons (11⁄2 ounces) Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup
Pour the milk into an egg cream glass and add seltzer until froth comes up to the top of the glass. Pour the syrup into the center of the glass and then gently push the back of a spoon into the center of the drink. Rock the spoon back and forth, keeping most of the action at the bottom of the glass, to incorporate the syrup without wrecking the froth. Serve immediately.
Recipe and Photo reprinted with permission from The Soda Fountain by Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain, Inc. copyright ©2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.
Photography ©2014 by Michael Harlan Turkell
Publisher retains all copyrights and the right to require immediate removal of this excerpt for copyright or other business reasons.