17 July 2009

Summertime cool

Moment Magazine has some great articles in its July-August issue.

There are features on the Jewish rag trade ("From Ghetto to Glamour") and black rabbis ("Postracial Rabbis"), as well as numerous shorter articles, such as the Jewish attitude towards tattoos ("Ask the Rabbi") offering responses from rabbis representing the spectrum of today's Judaism (from independent through Chabad).

However, during our Silicon Valley heatwave, the one that caught my eye featured fizzy drinks and the Jewish connection.

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.
Here's the history of fizzy (carbonated) water common to those three drinks. It first appeared as a medicinal drink in European spas.

The name seltzer came from springs in the German village of Nieder-Selters, where the water was bottled and sold in earthenware jugs even in 1728.

A forthcoming book on its history by Barry Joseph of Givemeseltzer.com should be a good read.

The fizzy water was supposed to cure myriad diseases, from a cold to TB.

Found in natural springs, with spas frequented by the wealthy, made the bubbles into an elite drink, and limited its marketing segment.

To the rescue came an English scientist Joseph Priestly (he discovered oxygen) who wrote a 1772 paper on how to infuse water with carbon dioxide to produce "sparkling water, resembling seltzer water.”

The person who enabled its marketing was German, Johann Jacob Schweppe, who invented a machine in 1783 to create bubbly water. Nine years later he opened a London sodawasser company. He sold the company in 1799, but his name remains.

They had the method, the machine and all they needed was a bottle to hold the aerated bubbly drink. The problem was solved by siphon-inventor Englishman Charles Plinth in 1813, and French innovators made later improvements.

Jews from Eastern Europe entered the US trade by the 1880s. With no access to natural springs, New York immigrants used well water. The immigrants termed the drink "two cents plain" - a glass of plain seltzer for 2 cents.

In 1900, there were at least 73 soda fountains in a one-third square mile area. The first flavors added to the plain fizz were chocolate and lemon. Supposedly, Schweppe was the first, in 1798, to mix in wine, spirits or milk.

Legend says chocolate and milk were added in Brooklyn and Louis Aster invented the egg cream in 1890. Sold in five candy stores, thousands waited in line for hours to get one.

Where did "egg" come in (there's no egg in the drink)? Some say it was a corruption of echt (genuine, Yiddish).

Although there's disagreement about the recipe, who invented it and other details, all mavens of the drink know that only one chocolate syrup is good enough, Fox's U-Bet. Some say it first appeared in 1904.

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.”
Read about the heavy clear or blue seltzer bottles that were made in Yugoslavia, according to the article. I have heard from those who were in the business that they came from Czechoslovakia and Poland. In any case, today they are collectibles.

Supermarkets are filled with aisles of club soda, mineral water and imported sparkling water, all considerably more expensive than a glass for 2 cents.

Read the complete article at the link above for more on Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray, which appeared in 1869 as a tonic for children. Other popular Dr. Brown flavors are cream (one of my favorites) and black cherry.

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