For those with a drop of interest in seltzer, author Barry Joseph has crafted an awfully crisp text. “Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink” pours readers a tall glass of history, practicality and fun.
Its 304 pages include everything from how seltzer developed — Joseph Priestley, an 18th-century English minister, is largely credited with discovering a means of manufacturing carbonated water — to the rise, fall and recent comeback in seltzer’s contemporary relevance, to even classic drink recipes.
(Sam Edelmann’s Egg Cream and Very Berry Ade were both intriguing enough to lead this reviewer down the internet’s rabbit hole of confounding seltzer concoctions, although yogurt and mint doogh does sound tasty.)
That so many pages are dedicated to a beverage with basically one ingredient is a feat on Joseph’s part.
As he explained in the opening pages, “Seltzertopia” bubbled out of a 2004 piece he wrote for The Forward in which in about 650 words, he essentially described the process of pushing down four times on a Soda-Club machine — Soda-Club and SodaStream, which is headquartered in Lod, Israel, merged in 1998, with the latter brand last month garnering headlines after being acquired by PepsiCo for $3.2 billion — thereby introducing carbonation and transforming water into seltzer.
Joseph’s piece, which he in retrospect admitted was driven by a desire to “get the appliance for free from the manufacturer,” was noticed by Carolyn Starman Hessel, executive director emerita of the Jewish Book Council, who encouraged him to devote an entire book to the effervescent subject. After 14 years of research, “Seltzertopia” is Joseph’s magnum opus.
On a whole, it is a sparkling take on all things seltzer. And though some readers may find the sheer vastness of material a bit dull — Joseph writes that the book “uses one simple product, seltzer, to unpack a broad swath of world history” — the book never falls flat.
In fact, for Steel City readers, “Seltzertopia” is like a window to a familiar world. Much of the book follows Pittsburgh Seltzer Works: from its 19th-century start through its 2009 sale by Evan Hirsh, David Faigen and Paul Supowitz to John Seekings and Jim Rogal, and up to the present day challenges of operating a business in which the machinery is antiquated, the siphons are limited and injuries appear more easily attained than profits.
East End readers should enjoy references to recognizable places — while speaking before a crowd, Seekings is quoted as saying, “I have got one woman, in Squirrel Hill, who lives on a fixed income. So, when I bring the delivery, she just makes cookies. And you know what … that seems like fair pay to me.”
Prominent personalities, like Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Rabbi Aaron Bisno, also appear. In the book, Bisno is present for a spirited discussion between Seekings, Rogal and others on “Why do Jews drink seltzer?”
The discussion spills over into side conversations on whether there is truly a “seltzer/Semitic connection,” the presence of “seltzer” as a “code word for ‘Jewish’” in literature, “the significant presence of Jews in the seltzer trade,” Eastern European Jewish “dietary habits,” and finally, the singularity of long ago seltzers possessing a stamp indicating their kosher status as opposed to other available beverages.
Ultimately, Joseph ends the passage by writing, “It turns out the question is backward. It should not be, Why do Jews drink seltzer? Instead, the question should be, Why doesn’t everyone else?”
But even apart from its ability to make you feel like a local yokel, “Seltzertopia” offers a refreshing treat. Between the history and personalities shared, Joseph has tapped the topic like none before. Carbonated water may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but “Seltzertopia” is definitely something to drink to. PJC