In the prologue to “Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink,” author Barry Joseph reveals the question he asked himself when presented with the prospect of writing a history of seltzer. “How could there be enough for a whole book?”
Joseph spends the rest of the book demonstrating that there is, in fact, quite a lot to say about seltzer, including its unique niche in American dining culture as a class signifier, and the number of industrious Jews who pop up in the cultural, technological and business development of carbonated water.
The book is a project of the Jewish Book Council, whose executive director emerita reached out to Joseph after reading a short essay he wrote for The Forward about a precursor to the SodaStream in 2004 (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 to say, Joseph has not phoned in “Seltzertopia.” Though the topic is, on its face, potentially 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 without a 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. JN
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.