personal essay

During My Parents’ Custody Battle, Egg Creams Were My Escape

updated May 14, 2021
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.

As I sipped through my bendy straw, I tasted the drink in layers: first the frothy top, next the fizzy bubbles, then the sweet chocolate milk shot up like fireworks to finish. 

Egg creams are equal parts magic and syrup. When I was eight, my dad introduced me to them at an old-school diner in New York City. I was fresh from Florida, and I remember walking in and seeing the plastic-covered seats and chrome booth details glimmering under the fluorescent lights. I curiously eyed people shoveling stacks of pancakes into their mouths even though it was well past breakfast time. 

My dad ordered me a chocolate egg cream, and the carbonated milk thrilled me. I’d never had anything like it before. It had the familiar taste of chocolate milk paired with the popping sensation of soda. But while the drink was memorable, the time spent with my dad was what was most precious to me then. They provided an escape from reality. Inside a diner with an egg cream, I was a normal kid happily sipping on a straw. Outside the diner, I was a little girl stuck in the middle of a custody battle that dragged me across the country.

My childhood was unstable by most standards. Before I entered college, I had already been to 11 schools and lived in 16 different places (or 17, depending how you count). My parents never got along and unofficially separated when I was five. It’s comforting to know as an adult that so many marriages end in divorce, but as a kid, I felt alone. Third grade was an especially complicated time because that’s when the official divorce finally began. I started school in Florida, where I lived with my mom, moved to New York in the middle of the school year to be with my dad, and then finished up back in Florida. I may have missed a few math lessons that year as I bounced around the country, but I did learn what egg creams were.

I describe the classic drink as a carbonated Yoo-hoo, because it’s essentially a combination of chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer. Legend has it that egg creams were first created in a Lower East Side candy shop during the 1890s. Despite the name, there is no egg or cream involved; and while vanilla is an option, chocolate is the only flavor I’ve ever cared about.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

My dad has loved egg creams since the ‘70s when he immigrated to New York City from South America. He passed down that love to my brother and me during our frequent diner visits. I still clearly remember the custody battle year: Whenever my parents had to speak on the phone, it always ended up in screaming matches. I tried, unsuccessfully, to muffle the noise by shutting the door. I was constantly scared about when I would have to move next because I didn’t know what the judge would decide.

Drinking egg creams inside diners gave me a break from it all. No court hearing updates, no lawyer talk, no thinking beyond the cup in front of me. Taking a sip created a gentle hum that drowned out the deafening noise of the present. My dad would only share good news inside diners, despite there being more bad than good to discuss then. On one memorable diner trip, he announced that he opened up my first bank account to help me save for college, which offered a rare glimpse of hope for the future. When the time came for me to go, I never saw the money, but that moment of  hope I felt as a child helped me believe that things would get better.

Now that I’m an adult, I am thankfully much more in control of my life, but there are still times when things feel like they’re spiraling out of control. In those moments, egg creams are what I reach for to bring me a feeling of peace. Even after all these years, I’m thankful that I can still lose myself in fizzy chocolate milk.

Get the Recipe: Diner-Style Egg Cream