Jewish Fizz: Seltzer, Egg Creams & Cel-Ray
by Joan Alpert
The old joke goes like this: An elderly Jewish man falls on a New York street on a hot summer day; a doctor rushes through the gathering crowd, checks the man’s pulse, and declares, “He fainted from the heat; get him water.” The old man raises his head and moans, “Make that seltzer.” In another version, he cries for an egg cream, and in still another, he calls for a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray.
Carbonated water, the primary ingredient of these three Jewish champagnes, appeared first in European spas as a medicinal drink. Natural sparkling mineral water from the springs of a German village, Nieder-Selters—the linguistic origin for seltzer—was bottled and sold as early as 1728 in earthenware jugs, according to Barry Joseph, founder of Givemeseltzer.com and author of a forthcoming book on seltzer’s history. Said to cure all sorts of diseases, from the common cold to tuberculosis, seltzer was touted in an 1835 New York Times ad for “travelers…as the only sure preventative against the influence of a hostile climate.”
Although the curative powers of carbonated water were widely accepted, the sole source was natural springs, which limited its consumption to wealthy visitors and to locals who could buy it bottled. Enter English scientist Joseph Priestly, better known for his discovery of oxygen. He explained in a 1772 paper how to impregnate water with what he called “fixed air” (carbon dioxide) to produce what Priestly described as “an exceedingly pleasant sparkling water, resembling seltzer water.” The next challenge was to enhance Priestly’s method to produce sufficient quantities for mass consumption. German-born Johann Jacob Schweppe, having grown bored with watchmaking, invented a machine in 1783 to create bubbly water. He opened a sodawasser company in London nine years later. Although he sold the company in 1799 and the venture’s ownership changed many times since, the name Schweppes still survives.
The last major obstacle to making seltzer a practical everyday drink was its container: Once opened, an entire bottle had to be consumed quickly or its bubbles would go flat. Charles Plinth devised the siphon in 1813 in England. He called it the “portable fountain,” because it could be mounted on carts. After improvements by French inventors, Plinth’s prototype evolved into the seltzer container for bottlers and soda fountains in the 19th century.
Eastern European Jews, many of whom had owned seltzer carts, entered the soda manufacturing trade in the United States as early as the 1880s, according to Joseph. Concentrated in New York, these seltzer makers used well water, not European mineral water. With Jewish immigration rising at the turn of the century, seltzer got a New York name: “two cents plain.” That nickname became the title of Harry Golden’s 1958 book on growing up poor from around 1910 through the 1930s, in which the world learned how anyone could buy a plain seltzer for only two cents.
The entire Lower East Side was “addicted to seltzer,” wrote Golden. At least 73 soda fountains in candy and drug stores stood in a one-third square mile area by 1900. Chocolate and lemon were the first New World flavors added to plain seltzer. According to one report, it was Schweppe, known as the father of the carbonated drink industry, who in 1798, became the first promoter of mixing his soda water with numerous enhancers like wine, spirits or milk—all of which would be adopted by sparkling water manufacturers over the next two centuries.
Chocolate and milk became the most popular seltzer water mixture at the turn of the century. Legend says that Louis Aster, a candy store owner, invented the egg cream in Brooklyn in 1890. He expanded his business to five candy stores throughout New York, selling the drink to thousands who would wait hours in line for it. The key ingredient is neither egg (which may be a corruption of the Yiddish echt, which means genuine) nor cream (though the drink’s white foamy top has a creamy appearance), but seltzer. It must be properly mixed with chocolate and milk. Aster’s recipe is unknown to this day, and disagreement abounds on the appropriate quantity and order of adding each of the three ingredients.
There’s no disagreement among egg cream aficionados, however, about the chocolate to be used. It must be Fox’s U-bet syrup, which, says the manufacturer, was first put into an egg cream in 1904. Rock musician Lou Reed’s Egg Cream (which was the first track on his 1996 album Set the Twilight Reeling) describes the wonders of his favorite childhood egg cream, “Becky’s fearsome brew,” as tasting “just like silk” with “chocolate bubbles up your nose.” Other celebrities have also immortalized the egg cream: Comedian Mel Brooks described its curative powers in a 1975 Playboy interview. When one of his childhood friends was hurt playing ball, he would scream, “Get the mercurochrome. Put a Band-aid on…Bring an egg cream.” The interviewer asked, “An egg cream has healing properties?” “An egg cream can do anything,” replied Brooks, who elaborated later, “Psychologically, it is the opposite of circumcision. It pleasurably reaffirms your Jewishness.”
Egg creams also shout “New York!” for they are rarely found outside its boroughs, although the Midwest’s chocolate phosphate is an egg cream without milk. Also little known beyond the east coast is the third Jewish champagne (purportedly dubbed so by Walter Winchell, the renowned gossip journalist): Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray. According to legend, someone, perhaps named Dr. Brown, combined celery seeds, seltzer and sugar in 1869 to create a tonic for immigrant Jewish children. Known as celery tonic when first bottled and sold by Scholz Bottling Company in the 1880s, it has a slightly bitter effervescent taste that is said to cut through the fat of a juicy pastrami sandwich like no other drink. After going through numerous owners, the drink became Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda (after the Food and Drug Administration said it was not a tonic in the early 20th century). Owned since 1982 by Canada Dry, Cel-Ray is currently consumed by those who “want to go down memory lane” to recall their parents’ culture, says Rosalie Mileo, Dr. Brown’s customer service manager, and is sold primarily in New York and to ex-New Yorkers who have retired to Florida. The popular Dr. Brown’s flavors today are cream soda and black cherry.
Is seltzer just the stuff of nostalgia? The famous heavy siphon bottles that adorned Jewish tables are now collectors’ items, most having been made in pre-World War II Yugoslavia. Even as early as the 1930s, says Joseph, marketers felt compelled to modernize the name seltzer to “club soda” (which may or may not have salt added to the water) to give it wider appeal. Since the 1970s, however, water is in vogue. Bottled mineral waters, such as Perrier, have become commonplace. Plain and flavored sparkling waters stock grocery shelves everywhere. And the moniker “seltzer” is back, too. Even Schweppes/Cadbury, which had never used the name in the U.S., created an American “seltzer” in the company’s bicentennial year. It may not be the same to those with long memories, but today’s seltzer can still remove stains and add air to biscuits.