On Chocolate Sodas and Springtime
This post is an introduction to a project I have wanted to do for over five years. I’ve talked about it quite a bit and finally, this year, it’s happening. I hope you enjoy the ride.
Here in the Midwest we are just a few days away from Springtime. I have a ritual I perform every year about this time in which I summon the warm breeze and sunlight of Spring. I do not sacrifice a calf or make odd, occult markings and chant. No, no, no, my ritual is simple yet powerful.
I get a chocolate soda.
“A what? What is this? You put chocolate syrup in a Sprite or something? That’s gross.”
No, I’m talking about a treat that throws back to old-time soda fountains and ice cream shoppes. A place where soda jerks mixed up delicious springtime and summertime drinks. It goes by many names and from my research (yes, I’ve done actual research) in soda jerk lingo, this favorite ice cream treat could be called an egg cream float or a black and white soda. And in Springtime they are particularly delicious as it reminds me that the cold winds are receding and warmer, sun-filled days lie ahead!
However, this ritual has become more and more difficult to do over the years as knowledge of what a chocolate soda is and how to make it has slipped away due to time and the convenience of bottled and canned soda. I find this all very odd considering the simple ingredients involved and how delicious the final outcome to be. And no, in case you are still making a weird face, it does not involve an egg.
I was introduced to chocolate sodas by my father. I do not know the date but I remember being in my early teen years so, perhaps, the late 70’s? My father was travelling northward to Columbus, Indiana on an errand involving his photography, delivering a print or working with a client and, being it was summertime and I was out of school, he had me go with him.
After the errand, he said we needed to stop one more place and we crossed Main St. towards a little shop with the odd words “Zaharako’s Confectionery” as it’s title. It was a candy shop but unlike anything I had seen before. Not only did it sell candy but it was an old-style ice cream parlor, complete with a beautiful marble soda fountain, shining chrome levers, spouts and a long wooden counter.
It felt like we had stepped back in time which was a stark contrast to the modern style architecture outside on the Columbus streets. My dad was going to get a “chocolate soda.” I had no idea what that meant and was just impressed with all the candy. I remember him saying something close to, “If you’re going to get one, this is the only place around that does it right.” And, on that recommendation, I ordered one. That’s my first actual memory of trying a chocolate soda.
I loved it.
What I call a chocolate soda is an alchemical mix of soda water, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate syrup. When done properly, it comes in as something a little less thick than a milkshake, fizzier and damn fine. The distinction of it being called an “egg cream” is the addition of the milk. From my research it appears raw eggs were actually used in sodas but during the Great Depression eggs were dropped from the recipe due to cost. From what I can tell though much of this is still up to debate. Some even say it’s because the white foam on top resembles an egg. Who knows, really? Perhaps, one day, in the nature of experimentation and historical research I’ll try it?
Like so many other recipes that contain a simple list of ingredients, having the ingredients on hand is one thing, putting them all together correctly is an art form. Consider, for instance, the crafting of bread? Beer? Wine? Shortbread? Simple ingredients, multiple variations and considered to be artistry to combine properly.
And, sadly, this is an art form which is rapidly disappearing. I’m not sure why, really. I can get why other art forms or crafts fade away. There’s just not much call for making a wooden ox harness these days, you know? But something that is as delicious as this? It’s just odd but, unfortunately, fact.
Every time I enter into a new ice cream place I scan the menu board to see what’s available. I will typically see this on the menu – “Shakes, malts, sodas.” Just the fact it’s on the menu does not mean the staff will know how to make it! I could write a separate post on all the different responses I have gotten to ordering, “A chocolate soda, please.” It would be a bittersweet post blended with humor and woe. (As I think about it, I’ll see what I can do about crafting it up soon.) I’m sure you’ll hear some stories soon enough with posts to come. Most employees, young and old, behind the counter have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s always an experiment for me and although the end result is sometimes disappointing, it’s always fun to hear the different responses or to see how they react.
As I’ve grown older I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of the chocolate soda. I’m continually on the look-out for the next place that might surprise (or terrorize) me and because of this, each time I walk into an ice cream shop it’s an adventure.
And, personally, I believe a well made soda contains magic.
So, yes, I’ve basically been on a quest for the holy grail of chocolate sodas.
Now, at the very edge of Springtime and in an effort to bring back an appreciation of this old-time treat, I’m going to begin blogging about it and reviewing sodas I come across. I’ll start local but my hope is to continue this for many years to come and to build outward. As I said, I’ve talked about doing this for almost a decade. It’s about time I started. You’ll also see a page become available at the top which will lead to a full index of all the reviews and stories.
In my next post, I’ll talk briefly about the reviewing standards I plan to use and following that we’ll get to reviewing the first soda of the 2016 season. From there, the quest will truly begin.
And as for the ritual I performed earlier this week? Well, let’s just say it will be the first review and that 24 hours later we had 70 degree weather and sunny skies. Who knew the spirits of Spring had a sweet tooth?
If you’re interested, below are some links that add more information and history to chocolate sodas, jerks, and egg creams.