The egg cream: For many it evokes dreams of a mythical golden age in Brooklyn – a time when the Dodgers captivated the borough, Coney Island was a sparkling wonderland, kids filled the streets playing stickball, newsboys hawked papers, and a soda fountain occupied every corner, where nattily-dressed ‘jerks’ served cool, fizzy, chocolatey egg creams…to everyone.
And then, they disappeared. Mention an egg cream to anyone born after 1980 and you’d probably get a blank stare. At least you would have, before Peter Freeman of the Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain dedicated himself and everything he had in the world to reviving the egg cream.
We met with Peter at the Farmacy to talk about egg creams, and his life-long search for a home – a search that took him from Maine to Florida, Montana, Israel, Australia and Hawaii, before he found what he was looking for in an abandoned, run-down, trash-filled 1920’s pharmacy and soda fountain in Carroll Gardens.
So Peter, why the egg cream?
My dad was from Queens. When he was a kid, egg creams were everywhere. There were soda fountains everywhere. There were egg cream carts everywhere, all over the city. Egg creams were an integral part of New York City life. Back then, they served them small because you were supposed to drink them fast. It was like the New York version of espresso. You’d step up to the bar, knock back your egg cream and be on your way.
It’s kind of silly, because it’s just an egg cream – it’s just a drink. But it’s a drink that’s a part of the Jewish-American culture that I was born into. The egg cream represented the soda fountain culture of New York and Brooklyn a couple of generations ago. It represented that golden age of Brooklyn. And it was disappearing.
I felt like nobody was fighting for it. It was this poor drink with a glorious New York history, and it was just fading away. Hardly anyone was making them anymore, and the few places that were, weren’t making them well. Kids had never heard of them. The egg cream needed a champion. Lots of people work on feeding the hungry and saving the whales, but nobody was fighting for the egg cream. Nobody was talking about it, nobody was ranting and raving about it, getting kids addicted to it. And that’s what the egg cream needed. So that’s what I decided to do.
What do you know about the history of the egg cream?
The Jews from Europe started coming over to New York in big numbers in the early 1900s. They started opening pharmacies on the Lower East Side, and the pharmacies had soda fountains. Pharmacies had soda fountains because they served seltzer water. Seltzer was basically an imitation of the natural mineral water that everyone drank in Europe – they thought the sparkling mineral water had medicinal properties. So the pharmacies here started infusing water with gas to emulate mineral water. It was sold as a kind of tonic.
Eventually, some enterprising pharmacist started mixing things with the seltzer. There are a lot of theories about how exactly the egg cream came about. I think someone started mixing beaten egg whites with seltzer. Eggs were cheap and healthy, and egg whites are really stable, so they’d mix them with the seltzer and sell it as a healthy drink. And one day somebody had the brilliant idea to add chocolate syrup, and there was the egg cream. Eventually, they started using milk instead of egg whites. There are a lot of theories about it, but that’s the one that makes the most sense to me.
What makes a good egg cream?
It’s the approach. The intent. You have to approach it with respect – the same way you’d approach anything you’re trying to do really well. There’s a process. You have to make sure all your tools are right, your ingredients are the best quality, the right temperature, that you do everything in the correct sequence.
At some point, I think people stopped taking them seriously. The approach became, “Oh it’s just milk, seltzer and syrup.” And they’d just throw it all together – whether it was seltzer out of a can, or using whatever kind of cheap milk, or whatever kind of cheap syrup.
To make a good egg cream everything has to be done just right. So we have a whole process and approach to the way we make ours. It’s like making a cocktail. You have to have the same mentality that the fanciest mixologist brings to making a cocktail. You have to give it the same reverence.
Egg creams are really one of the only New York originals. They should be made with pride. What else is really from New York? The Waldorf Salad? I can’t think of anything else, that actually originated right here in New York City. Everything came from someplace else.
So what led you to this? How did you end up opening the Farmacy and fighting for the renaissance of the egg cream?
I bounced around a lot as a kid. My parents were basically artists – back-to-the-landers. My father was from Forest Hills, in Queens. My mom was from Amsterdam. They met in New York and moved to northwestern Maine and became hippies. I was born there. When I was a few years old, they started getting sick of the Maine winters. So one day we packed up the old blue station wagon and drove south.
There was no plan about where we were going to live – we just headed south. And we ended up in Gainesville, Florida. My parents split up in the 90s, and I moved back to Maine with my mom, then back to Florida, and back to Maine again.
I was never really anywhere for more than a few years. I went to college in Missoula, Montana. Montana was just beautiful. Between the rivers, the forests, the mountains – there were all these deeply different worlds, minutes apart. Seeing that kind of place gives you some real pride in America. If you spend your whole life in the Northeast, you get burnt out. You think ‘America’ is just a bunch of annoying politics. But when you get out into the mountains in places like Montana and Wyoming, you’re like, “Wow. This is the most beautiful place in the world.” And you feel a kind of awe and pride about America as a place.
During college I went to Israel for a year, to work on a kibbutz. I just wanted to go. I was born Jewish. My relatives were holocaust survivors. When I was a kid, it was a little weird. When my parents were born, right after the war, everyone was like, ‘Don’t let anyone know you’re Jewish!” They were still freaked out. By the time I was born it was more like, “You’re Jewish, but we don’t do anything.” I didn’t identify with being Jewish, but I felt a pull to check out Israel.
And I always took road trips. I did road trips to cook for people. I had a black book with the names of all my friends, family, lovers, all over the country. I’d hop in the car and drive a thousand miles to cook dinner for someone. That was my thing. I was really into that. I was always on the move.
After college I went to Australia. There’s this program called WWOOF. It stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms. They send you a book listing organic farms all over the world. You can contact the farmers and tell them who you are and what you can do. If they can use you, they’ll invite you to the farm and you go for a few days or a few weeks and work four hours a day in exchange for room and board.
So I hitchhiked all over Australia, basically cooking for people on organic farms. I’d call ahead, show up, work for a couple of hours, then cook for everyone. I’d make these great meals. I’d bake pies. When you bake pies for people, they want to give you their daughters’ hands in marriage. Everybody eats, so when you can cook, you have an instant connection with everyone.
When I got back to the States, I felt like I was done wandering. I’d been wandering my whole life, and I wanted to find a place to live. To really settle in and live. So I did an epic two month bus trip on Greyhound, searching for a place to live.
I kept looking and looking. I assumed I’d get a sign, or I’d meet somebody. I assumed that a situation would present itself and tell me, “This is where you are meant to be.” I thought I’d run into someone who’d say, “Stay in my warehouse here for as long as you like.” Or, “Meet my daughter. Settle down.”
But it didn’t work. There was always something wrong. The weather was cold, or the apartments were ugly, or the public transportation was loud. I wasn’t complaining – I was just traveling and searching. So I’d get back on the bus. I hit pretty much every single state and every big city in the lower forty-eight, and…it didn’t work. I couldn’t find that place where I wanted to live. So I ended up in Hawaii.
I had a friend who was living over there on Maui. He had a job working landscaping, and he was like, “Come on out here. I have a job for you. You can work landscaping with me.”
So I went to Maui, and within the first week of arriving, I went with these landscaping guys to do a job on Lanai, a little island across the channel. And that was it. I knew right away that Lanai was the place I’d been looking for. We ended up spending a couple of days a week on Lanai tending these huge wild landscapes full of native plants and wild edibles on these enormous, gorgeous oceanfront estates. And I was like, “Boom. This is it. This is where I want to be. Thank you!!!” I had found the place.
The landscaping guys were really cool. They knew a lot about native plants. These guys were not mowing lawns. It was like alpha gardening. You’d surf all morning, garden hard all day, surf in the evening, party at night and do it all over again the next day. I convinced the guys to let me stay and be the Lanai guy. So I moved to Lanai to take care of their accounts there.
Eventually, the clients bought me out. They realized, “Why are we paying these guys on Maui to pay Pete, who lives right here, to do this work?” So they hired me directly. It was 2006, and I found myself living on this tiny Hawaiian island, managing these two estates with massive landscaping budgets.
Living the dream?
Absolutely. Lanai was beautiful. It was unbelievable. Laid back. Not many tourists. It used to be a pineapple island. Dole bought the whole island in the 1920’s and turned the entire thing into a pineapple plantation. Dole was taken over by a company called Castle & Cook in the 80’s, and a guy named David Murdock bought Castle & Cook. So he ended up owning Lanai. This one guy basically owns the entire island.
It was a plantation island. There’s one tiny town. Everyone lives in town, in these little flimsy bungalows that were built by Dole. Everyone’s packed into one square half mile. There’s nobody living anywhere else on the island, other than on a few of these multi-million dollar estates on the waterfront that have been built relatively recently.
So Mr. Murdock decided to pull up all the pineapples. He developed two super-high end resorts, and now pretty much everybody on the island works in some capacity for the resorts. And Mr. Murdock is there. He’s active. He’s up in the situation on Lanai. He’s running the show, running the island, really, on a day-to-day basis.
So I was working for these two clients – splitting time between their estates. Eventually one of the guys bought out the other and I started working full time on this one estate. The owner had a lot of cash coming in, and he put it into the property. We ended up spending about $600,000 on landscaping over the course of two years.
I worked with one other guy on that estate. He was the indoor guy. He ran the house. He was like the house boy and I was the field boy. In order to keep the whole property as a tax write-off, the owner did luxury rentals when he wasn’t there. When we had guests staying there, I’d hire myself out as a chef. We’d cook right out of the garden. The garden was huge. We were growing avocado, papaya, mango, guava, tomatoes and everything you could think of.
After a few years, I got traded up again. This time I got sold to Mr. Murdock. He had all these projects he wanted to tackle. He was the kind of guy who’d walk in and say, “I want that tree taken out. I want you to make a house out of that tree. What’s going on!? Why isn’t this done!? You’re all fired!!!”
Then he’d come back in the afternoon shouting, “Where is everyone? Why isn’t everyone working!?”
I’d say, “You fired them all this morning.”
He’d say, “Well hire them back! We have work to do!”
So it was kind of fun and crazy at the same time.
We needed workers for all these landscaping projects, so I started bringing in Mainers – guys I knew from back home. We built a half-million dollar wood shop and we started harvesting koa wood. We were harvesting koa trees and replanting them. We were harvesting kiawe, a tree that had grown wild all over the east end of the island. So now I’ve got this crew of Mainers working for me clear-cutting vast swaths of this remote Hawaiian island…It was nuts.
And it just started to get out of control. At some point I started to feel like I was taking it from all sides. The Mainers were mutinying. They all went native. They were surfing and spearfishing and chasing the local girls instead of showing up for work. I had gotten married, and that wasn’t going well. Some of the locals resented me because I had Mr. Murdock’s ear and was running all these massive projects. And working for Mr. Murdock himself was crazy. So this life that had been like a dream just started to suck.
I woke up one day and realized my life was completely irrelevant. I’d been wandering for years. I had been on Lanai for seven years, and nobody cared. Nobody I cared about ever came to visit. I had built this whole business, but it didn’t really amount to anything. I wasn’t changing anything. I wasn’t doing anything that mattered. So one day I just quit.
I packed seven boxes, left everything else behind, and moved to Brooklyn. I had some good friends here who had been kind of suspicious of my Hawaii life from the start. They were happy to have me back on the East Coast, in Brooklyn.
My friend Jake lived upstairs from the space that became the Farmacy. I stayed at his place for a while. He had a friend Patrick who worked for the Greenhorns, a group dedicated to supporting young farmers. Patrick convinced the owner of the building to let him use the future Farmacy space for a fund raiser.
It was the first time the landlord had let anyone in here in ages. The place was insane. There were decades-old, dust-covered pill bottles and flowers and magazines and candy from the 70s on all the shelves and counters and all over the place. It was like nobody had ever taken anything down or taken anything out of here after the original pharmacy closed decades ago.
Jake, Patrick and I really fell for the space. It was just an amazing thing – this old-school pharmacy and soda fountain that had been frozen in time decades ago. We came up with the Farmacy idea. We were going to fill the place with local produce and meats, and we’d have the soda fountain to drive it all. The farm part of it was really Jake and Patrick’s thing. I just wanted to make egg creams. I started to be really taken with the whole egg cream thing once we started digging out this space. It just felt right. It felt relevant. It felt important, and that’s what I was looking for. So I kept going with it.
It was a nightmare, though. The landlord wouldn’t give us a lease. He kept saying he would and it never happened. He had owned it forever, and for whatever reason, he couldn’t bring himself to put together a lease. Patrick and Jake bailed on the project because it didn’t make sense to them to commit to it and to do all this work without a lease. But I just kept working on it. I felt like I had to just keep working on it.
Eventually, the landlord ended up in the hospital and his brother gave me a lease and let me live in the back of the Farmacy space while I kept working on the renovation. I was basically broke at that point. I was all-in on this project. I was living here with no heat, no water. The electricity was limited to one cord that powered an exposed lightbulb. I was sleeping on an air mattress that had a slow leak. It was pretty miserable, but I was obsessed with the space, with restoring this historic pharmacy and soda fountain and using it to bring good egg creams back to Brooklyn. I was on a mission and I couldn’t turn back.
I remember one kind of depressing morning. It was like 11am, and I was sitting on the floor frying this little piece of meat in a hot pot, and this woman walks in. She was a designer, and she was like, “This place is so beautiful. I want to do a fashion shoot here. It’s amazing.” And I’m sitting there on the floor, drowning in this project, broke, frying meat in a hot pot.
So how did you get over the hump? How did you get what you needed to open?
I started by borrowing some money from my parents. The idea was to get an architect, put together a design and a business plan, and then go after investors. So we hired a series of architects and one after another they were like, “You’re totally screwed.” Electricity? Shot. Plumbing? Shot. The structure itself? Totally shot. They basically said, “It’s going to cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars just to make it workable.” And that would before even doing anything fun, like buying light fixtures or stools or anything.
It’s one thing to raise $60,000, but if you have to raise $300,000 for a business like this, it’s a whole different thing. It’s impossible. One by one, these architects and contractors all told me the same thing – never gonna happen. Never gonna happen. It just needed too much work, too much money. It was beyond what I could make happen myself. So one day, I gave up.
I gave up on a Saturday. That Sunday I remember I went to help Cathy Erway at Sixpoint Brewery put together a chicken pen for their garden in Red Hook. I was supposed to go on a date that night and my date cancelled on me. I was back here, pretty bummed out, and I walked outside. As I stepped outside, a woman pulled up in a car and asked, “Is this your place?” She started asking me about it. “How big is it?” “What are you doing with it?” “Are you renovating?” “Have you had any problems with the renovation?”
I said, “Well, if you want to hear that story you should probably turn off your car and come inside.” [laughter].
So she came in and I showed her around and after a little while she said, “I’m the casting director for a New York-based Discovery Channel reality show called Construction Intervention. We intervene in projects that have gone awry. It’s a ten episode series and we’ve done nine of them. We’re looking for a tenth. What do you think?”
I was like, “What? You have to be kidding.”
She said, “I’m going to come back tomorrow, do some interviews with people in the neighborhood, and see if there’s something here.”
As soon as she left, I went to everyone in the neighborhood, to everyone I knew. The locals, the newbies, my friends, the architect, the contractor, and I said, “I need your help. This is the last shot for the Farmacy. I need you to show up, do these interviews, go on camera, and convince these people to do this.”
And it was amazing. We had a huge turnout and we built a great case. The show doesn’t tell you whether or not you’ve been picked. They want to surprise you. My sister and I were sure we wouldn’t get it. These porto-potties and stuff started showing up one day on the sidewalk and we didn’t make the connection. And the next day, this guy walks in and says, “Surprise! We’re here!” He had like fifty guys with him! Guys were pouring in here, tearing down walls, putting things up, swarming over everything for four days, and then they were gone. It was done. That was it.
The place looked spectacular. Getting on that show took us from a place where it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to open to a place where we only needed a few thousand. So we opened our doors a couple of weeks later and started serving egg creams.
Looking back on it, it’s just unbelievable that it all actually worked out. This was all a wild, insane fantasy. I just believed in it. I had been interviewed by a few newspapers back in the winter of 2010, before the show found us, and I had told them things like, “I don’t know how it’s going to work. I’m broke. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but it’s going to work. We’re going to make it happen.”
Honestly, I can’t really explain it. It’s just too crazy.
For me, this is all about the egg cream. This isn’t about me – it’s about the story of egg creams. Sometimes I think this whole story had to manifest itself one way or another, and it just happened to choose me. I didn’t choose it, it chose me. Egg creams couldn’t just disappear. This story needed one person who wasn’t doing anything else, who was totally available, to make it happen. It only worked out because I’d given up everything else in my life. I always say that I had to walk away from everything until I was totally empty – empty enough that I could be filled up by this place and this mission.
You know, when I was in Israel and Australia and Hawaii, I felt like everybody had their own fight. The Palestinians and the Israelis, the Aboriginals and the Australians, the native Hawaiians and the haoles. I lived in those places, where those fights were always part of the fabric of everyday life, but none of them were my fights. Here in Brooklyn I finally found my fight – the egg cream. Bringing back the egg cream, turning people on to it, is my fight. This speaks to me as much as anything I’ve ever done in my life.
And for now, it’s working. The New York Times has written about egg creams. Edible has written about them. The New Yorker, The Food Network, The Cooking Channel and ABC News have all covered it. They’re doing egg creams at Eleven Madison Park, one of the best restaurants in the city. I think the egg cream is being talked about now more than it has been in a generation. It’s back. It might disappear again, but for now, it’s back.
This morning, I opened the door and there was a mom waiting there with her four year old daughter. As soon as I opened the door the little girl screams, “Egg creams!” and runs into the place and hops up on a stool. And that was awesome, because the experience of sitting at a soda fountain and drinking an egg cream has been passed down to this kid. God willing, when she grows up she’ll have memories of having egg creams with her mom, when she was a little kid, right here, at the Farmacy.
And, that’s what it’s all about. That’s it.
Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain is located at 513 Henry Street, at the corner of Sackett, in Carroll Gardens.