Ode on the soda syphon

Graphic by Alex Swanson

My mother likes telling me that she used to put soda water in my baby bottle. Before I was eating solid food I was sipping that bubbly. Recent psychological studies have found that a child’s personality is fully developed by the time they reach first grade. You’ve got to start them young, and that’s exactly what the Sneiders did. As a little girl, I preferred sparkly water to sparkly dresses. It was infused in every part of my upbringing, an irrevocable element of family life.

Sunday afternoons meant making “Mixies”—Tropicana orange juice and soda water—with my sister and father. Visits to my grandparents on school breaks meant waiting excitedly at the dining room table while my grandmother concocted her famous chocolate sodas. Forget hot chocolate—seltzer with swirls of Hershey’s syrup and vanilla ice cream was the ultimate holiday treat.

These days, finding a fellow seltzer-lover is like meeting someone from my hometown. Those of us with a die-hard allegiance to effervescence are in a class of our own. We can discuss the mouthfeels and flavors of various carbonated offerings with the kind of technical jargon generally reserved for theoretical physicists. Last year for my birthday, my sister bought me a water bottle more accommodating of fizz than my battered, blue plastic standby. While other college students spend their extra dining dollars on pints of Ben and Jerry’s and large boxes of Wheat Thins, my friends and I reserve our surplus meal swipes to gorge on Schweppes’ black cherry flavor, or occasionally Polar’s cranberry-lime. And I am proud to announce that I have enjoyed many a bonding moment in front of the soda water tap in the dining hall. While some rookies hit the seltzer button by accident, I know exactly what I am getting myself into. Occasionally the person behind me in line will mutter, “You know that’s not water, right?” I reply firmly: “Believe me, I know.”

Lately, soda water has been making a comeback. In the States, seltzer sales have more than doubled in the last five years, perhaps as part of the move away from sodas with enough sugar (or, even worse, aspartame) in them to shock a horse. But as Rob Engvall wrote in his article “A Millennial’s Guide to Seltzer” (printed in the pages of hipster food mag Lucky Peach), “You don’t get a whole wall dedicated to yourself at the new Whole Foods in Williamsburg by being ‘healthy’—you get it because you’re cool.”

But for the real fanatics, bubbles are more than a passing fad; they’re a way of life. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the “Seltzer Enthusiasts” thread on reddit. “Hey, glad I found you guys,” one comment reads. Another recent post advertises one man’s new online venture: a website for seltzer reviews and a way for him to “catalog [his] seltzer journey.” Limited-edition flavors and more classic varieties are rated on smell, subtlety, intensity, title to flavor, and refreshment level, with a write-up to boot. I could not make this up if I tried.

I have always felt, perhaps irrationally, that my own fondness for fizz is in my blood. Seltzer is my parents and grandparents. It is burps and laughter after a large meal. Jessica Leshnoff sums it up on her now-defunct personal blog, “lunch at 11:30”: “the JSG (Jewish seltzer gene) makes no sense to me, since Jews by their very nature are a) gassy… and b) complainers. We have very sensitive systems and complain about everything. Why would we be inexplicably drawn to a beverage that will not only gives us gas but compels us to complain … about how gassy we are? It seems wrong. And yet… we just can’t stop ourselves.”

It is a connection that, at first glance, makes little sense. Seltzer may be hot and trendy right now but to many it still connotes deli culture and Litvaks and old-world Jewry. And yet, it is hard to imagine my ancestors sipping on soda water in the heart of the shtetl. For much of recorded history, sparkling water has been a luxury beverage, found in mineral springs and enjoyed by those with an appetite for grandeur. But in the 18th century Joseph Priestly, the English theologian better known for discovering oxygen, thought to mix water with carbon dioxide, making manufactured bubbles a possibility for the masses.

The Jewish tie to seltzer didn’t come until a century after Priestley worked his alchemic magic. Jews arriving on the Lower East Side in the late 1800s quickly took to soda water, the cheapest drink on the market that wasn’t plain old fizz-free. It even earned the nickname “Jewish champagne.” In the words of Jessica Edwards, the filmmaker behind the documentary Seltzer Works,  “[seltzer] refers to a time and place we don’t have anymore.”

My mother says that seltzer takes her back to her childhood, even though she didn’t like the taste much growing up. Her father would always drink the Canada Dry variety, which came in tall, heavy, glass bottles. When he asked my mother to fetch him the seltzer, she had to carry these bottles with both hands. As she recalls this, she describes the glass’s slight bluish tint, laughing a little. “I feel this profound connection to it even though I didn’t really drink it,” she tells me. “It was corned beef, it was lox, it was seltzer. Seltzer was a refrain. It was one of those quiet Jewish cultural things. It wasn’t done with any intention; it was just who we were.”

My father’s parents didn’t drink soda water when he was young. “Maybe they were too assimilated,” he remarks off-hand. But when I ask him for childhood memories of seltzer, they come to mind instantly. One such recollection: a family friend, Dick Rabinowitz, a lawyer who wore impressive glasses and “looked like a mad scientist.” No matter what anyone else had to drink, Dick only ever had seltzer. For my father, too, the drink was wedded to old-world Jews, their heavy, greasy food, and schmoozing around the table.

My parents returned to their carbonated roots around the same time they met each other. My mother thinks she first acquired a taste for it when trendy imported waters hit the scene in the eighties. For my dad, Tab came first: “I wanted a tasteless bubbly experience.” Before long, both were drinking seltzer by the gallon. Much like my mother, my older sister and I grew up toting glass bottles to the table as we set it for dinnertime. Ours were Suntory brand club soda, four for the four of us. For both my sister and I, childhood memories of Suntory soda are plentiful and vivid: the satisfying sound of untwisting a metal cap, or how, in her words, “a freshly-opened bottle sort of burns when you drink from it.” She too cites the baby bottles and the Mixies.

It can be confusing when something well-worn and beloved to you is hip and cool to everyone else. It is exciting to share a bottle of soda water with the uninitiated, to acquaint them with my old favorite. But in the same moment there’s an impulse to point out that I was there first. To me, seltzer will always evoke the bygone time and place documentarian Jessica Edwards remarked on. It is a hereditary condition. But the seltzer bottle has gone the way of the bagel. Like most everything from days of yore, it is being reframed and newly understood. If I wanted, I could even make a Mixie in the nearest college dining hall.

2 Responses

  1. […] titled, “Seltzer Isn’t a Trend, It’s a Way of Life” to the Yale Herald’s “Ode on the soda syphon,” writers were declaring not just their love for the carbonated beverage but claiming an identity […]

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