A bubbly history

Barry Joseph dives deep into the sparkling background of American Jews’ long love affair with seltzer

SELTZER SIPHONS, a relic of a bygone era, sit on a shelf in Los Angeles, California, in 2011. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/MCT) (photo credit: MEL MELCON/LOS ANGELES TIMES/MCT)
SELTZER SIPHONS, a relic of a bygone era, sit on a shelf in Los Angeles, California, in 2011. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from a book all about seltzer. And, after reading Barry Joseph’s introduction to his book, Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink, it’s clear that he didn’t quite know either.
But after almost 15 years of research and work, Joseph has produced a delightful, effervescent and intriguing book.
Joseph, a writer and educator from New York, has poured his heart and soul into what could undoubtedly be called a definitive history of the bubbly drink. So let’s begin where it all started: Selters, Germany. That’s right, the name of the fizzy beverage can be traced back to a popular spa town in western Germany whose naturally sparkling waters drew visitors from around the globe.
But Joseph doesn’t begin his history in Selters. He starts out Seltzertopia with a pair of friends in Pittsburgh, who decided in 2009 to purchase an old-fashioned seltzer works – the term for a seltzer manufacturing and bottling factory. The story of the two friends and business partners – John Seekings and Jim Rogal – serves as a framing device and narrative for the rest of the book. Why did two public relations executives decide to try their hand at an endangered and outdated business? And what did they – and Joseph – learn about the world of seltzer along the way?
The book is filled to the rim with quirky seltzer anecdotes – including the 36-foot marble monument that marks the Brooklyn burial site of John Matthews, also known as the “soda fountain king” who died in 1870. Joseph also recounts an infamous run-in in New York City between a dangerous Jewish mobster and the egg cream king of midtown Manhattan, Stanley Auster. There’s also a whole section dedicated to the famous Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup – a critical ingredient in a classic egg cream (along with seltzer, of course). Joseph recounts the company’s struggle for a kosher certification when they opted for a rabbi who wasn’t part of the Orthodox Union, and notes how real egg cream traditionalists try to get their hands on kosher for Passover syrup, which is made with cane sugar and not corn syrup (Ashkenazi Jews do not consume corn products, also known as kitniyot or legumes on Passover.)
The author also explores in depth the inexplicable but undeniable connection between Jews and seltzer. Seltzertopia is dotted with Jewish characters, from owners to delivery men, customers and everyone in between. And Joseph noted that the close relationship between the Jewish community and the bubbly drink was often an unspoken, yet obvious one to those in the industry.
“It was not something anyone ever thought about,” he wrote. “It was just common sense. Plain and simple: Jews drank seltzer.”
Joseph offers up three potential but inconclusive reasons for the inextinguishable love of Jews for seltzer. Firstly, he said, Jews ended up working heavily in commerce, both in manufacturing and in delivery. And, many Jewish immigrants who found themselves in the field would bring their family and friends into the business as well. Like Jews on the Lower East Side who sold pickles from carts, many also ended up plying the bubbly water trade.
A second reason Joseph offers is that the beverage was thought to help aid the digestion of Jews, who – in addition to often being plagued by digestive issues – also ate a very heavy, traditional eastern European diet. However, he notes that Jews were not alone in consuming such a diet, yet they were the ones who became inexplicably linked to the drink.
The third reason posited is that seltzer was a more exciting beverage than just water, and since it consists of just water and carbon dioxide – was easily kosher certified. Joseph doesn’t note it, but seltzer is also a pareve (neither dairy nor meat) beverage, making it suitable for any kosher meal.
While the book is fun and full of joy, it bounces around in time, often making things a bit hard to follow. Only by piecing things together throughout the book can you trace the history from its origins in Europe to its early manufacturing process, and then to its popularity boom in the United States at the end of the 19th century. Joseph devotes a particularly colorful chapter to the short-lived but flashy boom of Original New York Seltzer, helmed by a 20-something billionaire who created a commercial featuring rock music, a 10-story jump and a live tiger.
Toward the end, the author also notes the recent rebound of seltzer with cult-like flavored beverages, including La Croix, which experienced a resurgence in recent years.
Joseph has undoubtedly written a love letter to seltzer, a cheerful tome that inspired even a seltzer-hater like myself to give the beverage a second look. But he ends on a fairly positive note, touting the experience of the Pittsburgh friends who fell in love with the seltzer trade. But he fails to note that the Pittsburgh Seltzer Works, the beloved small-town business that lasted more than 100 years, has since been sold to a company in Florida.
Some things just fizzle out in the end.
By Barry Joseph
Behrman House
304 pages; $26.95