Book Review: Seltzer History Bubbles with Details

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Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink

Barry Joseph

Behrman House

In the prologue to Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink, author and educator Barry Joseph reveals the question he asked himself when he was presented with the prospect of writing a history of seltzer.

It was the one undoubtedly on the mind of anyone who has made it so far as to read the first few pages: “How could there be enough for a whole book? What was there actually to say?”

Joseph spends the rest of the book, quite earnestly and quite admirably, trying to convince you that there is, in fact, quite a lot to say about the history of seltzer; doubly so for its unique niche in American dining culture as a class signifier, and triply so for the industrious Jews that pop up over and over again in the cultural, technological and business development of carbonated water.

The book itself is a project of the Jewish Book Council. After Joseph wrote a short essay for The Forward about a precursor to the SodaStream in 2004, Carolyn Starman Hessel, executive director emerita of the Jewish Book Council, reached out to him with an idea for a full-length book, prompting that initial question (the essay, he writes, was a thinly veiled bid to be sent one of those proto-SodaStreams for free). But Joseph’s exploratory conversations with friends, family and New Yorkers going about their day revealed that there was much more than met the eye with seltzer. (One wonders about the vast reserves of patience possessed by the “random people” Joseph stopped to interview about their feelings on this subject).

Were there close to 300 pages of unmet need? That’s hard to say; this might’ve been better suited as a long essay, rather than a full book.

Regardless, seltzer history completists will be delighted to find discussions of everything from its centrality to early soda fountains to seltzer’s function in the comedy of the Three Stooges. Joseph tracks seltzer sales and ruminates on the volume of mentions of seltzer in literature over the decades using a tool Google has developed for tracking such things. This is assuredly the only book you will ever read in which Perrier plays an outsized role.

Suffice it to say, Joseph has not mailed in Seltzertopia. Though the topic is, on its face, unbearably dull, and Joseph cannot help but insert puns about “flatness,” “bubbling” and more, there are sections of the book that redeem it from those sins.

Discussion of what seltzer has signified in terms of class to generations of Americans (and specifically American Jews) is fascinating, and no good book about seltzer would be complete with the list of recipes at the end for soda creams and cherry-lime rickeys. And Joseph’s enthusiasm for the project shines through, enlivening otherwise dreary material.

If you’ve bought even just one can of La Croix, Seltzertopia might be worth your time.

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