Old school folks know the riddle of the onetime delicatessen staple the egg cream: It contains neither eggs nor cream.
A classic egg cream consists of half-and-half or whole milk, chocolate syrup (traditionalists insist it be Fox's U-bet Chocolate Syrup), and seltzer. It first appeared during the late 1800s in New York City, but the origins of its peculiar name are often hazy. Some say that the name came from the Yiddish word echt, which means "real." Others believe the egg cream stemmed from egg-and-cream milkshakes popular at the end of the 19th century and through the 1920s.
Whatever their history, egg creams had long been relegated to the memories of aging deli clerks and their mostly Jewish customers. Then, in the last couple years, they started popping up at foodie enclaves in New York and in D.C. spots like DGS Delicatessen (which we tried and loved), Farmers Fishers Bakers, and at Buffalo and Bergen in Union Market. When Lost City Diner, the long-dormant Art Deco Station North diner reopened recently, the "New York egg cream" was on the menu.
We wanted to find more places making the classic fizzy, sweet, and surprisingly refreshing drinks here. We thought that with Baltimore's rich Jewish history, we'd practically be tripping over egg creams.
Our search began at Corned Beef Row institutions Attman's and Lenny's. Neither deli had an egg cream on the menu, but we hoped someone would be familiar with it.
We found an older man behind the counter at Lenny's. "Has anyone ever asked for an egg cream since you've worked here?"
"No one besides you."
He knew what egg creams are, but he couldn't think of a single place in Baltimore to find it. "Wow," he continued, surprised we'd asked. "That's really old school."
We headed down Lombard to Attman's, hoping for better luck. The cashier shook her head. "Maybe it was on the menu a while back?"
We had higher hopes for Suburban House, affectionately known as S&H, a Pikesville landmark offering old-style Jewish deli items with a median customer age that seems to hover in the 70s. Joe Stowe, an owner of S&H for the past 28 years, said the egg cream was on the menu for years. It was removed in 2008 but longtime customers still ask for it.
Now, the closest thing to an egg cream on S&H's menu is a chocolate soda, made with Fox's U-bet Chocolate Syrup and seltzer. It's popular with his younger customers, he says.
Stacy, a manager at nearby Miller's Deli, can also make egg creams if customers request them of him.
But with younger people, he said, the more popular drink is again the chocolate soda. When we asked about his recipe, he just smiles. "I make mine extra chocolatey, with lots of chocolate syrup. That's why people keep coming back."
While Stacy's chocolate soda is a delicious treat (don't sleep on Miller's corned beef or hot dogs either), it's still not the original egg cream we set out to find.
Giving up on old school and settling for retro, I made one final stop, at Lost City Diner, which has a laser-like focus on old school soda-fountain offerings.
Owner John Rutoskey, a Baltimore-area native and longtime soda-fountain enthusiast, remembers visiting diners with his parents when he was young. In reopening Lost City Diner, he wanted to emphasize nostalgic fountain drinks, like the egg cream, that he loved as a child.
Rutoskey tracks the disappearance of the egg cream to the 1950s, when fast-food restaurants like McDonald's started replacing diners and soda fountains. "Most people your age think it's actually made with an egg," he said.
Rutoskey uses a classic egg cream recipe he found from a fellow enthusiast. He even ships Fox's U-bet Chocolate Syrup straight from the Brooklyn factory where it's made.
He adds 2 tablespoons of Fox's to a glass, then fills it about a third of the way with half-and-half. To finish, he uses a powerful jet spray of seltzer that stirs the ingredients in the glass without having to use a spoon. This method preserves the bubbles in the drink and gives the top a frothy appearance.
Rutoskey plans to add more "forgotten" old school drinks to his menu in the future. "I think I might be the only restaurant in Baltimore where you can find a real egg cream on the menu."
As of now, I think he might be right.