"Huh," my California-raised girlfriend said as she put the green can down for the first time. "That's not as bad as I thought it would be."
Longtime New Yorkers may know what she's talking about: Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda, the herbaceous, bitter, and peppery soft drink that, yes, is still in production, with a zaftig perfume that's equal parts beguiling and refreshing. Look hard enough and you can still find it in some old school delis and the odd bodega.
Cel-Ray is a survivor of what soda mecca The Fizzary's Taylor Peck considers a flavor consolidation towards "an innocuous group of fruits and, barely, herbs." How has Cel-Ray survived in a world dominated by cola and lemon-lime? And how did it come about in the first place?
The story is as unusual as the soda's flavor itself.
According to company lore, Cel-Ray was invented by a certain Dr. Brown, a man who we know little about and may have been a marketing ploy. Depending on the source, he either lived in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side in New York City. There, according to Marianne Santora, whose father's company J&R Bottling brought Cel-Ray to California, "he made tonics for the people, including a celery tonic that was thought to be good for calming stomachs and bowels." This celery tonic was the progenitor of our beloved Cel-Ray soda.
"It was a very thick celery tonic that was difficult to get down," she added, but carbonation made it palatable. When Dr. Brown debuted the soda in 1868, he marketed it as "Celery Tonic," though the FDA eventually objected to the use of the word tonic. (Hence Cel-Ray.) Today, the Dr. Brown's brand is owned by the Harold Honnickman Group, who bought it from American Beverage.
Cel-Ray owes much of its success to how well it pairs with salty, fatty deli fare (it's perfect with pastrami). But its origins are more complicated. Back in the 1800s, pedestrian celery was considered a superfood, and in fact it's been used as medicine in countries like China since ancient times. Just how celery worked its magic was less clear, but that didn't matter to people who were happy to sell it as a medicinal tonic to unsuspecting consumers. Dr. Brown was simply tapping into a then-in-vogue health trend. There was no celery in Dr. Brown's soda—just celery seeds—also anointed as medicinally beneficial. The association, though, certainly didn't hurt.
At the time of Cel-Ray's invention, celery was just gaining a foothold in this country, thanks to seeds brought over by immigrant farmers. Like an agricultural Silicon Valley, the celery market was ripe for innovation: celery soap, celery chewing gum...you get the idea. Several manufacturers made celery sodas or tonics, like Lake's Celery, invented in 1887, and Celery-Cola, produced by a Coca-Cola partner, but they all perished as America's great celery fascination wore off around the 1930s.
Yet why soda to begin with? How does a sugary beverage get sold as health food?
The answer goes deeper than celery soda alone. Doctors and laypeople considered all kinds of sodas to be good for you. Dr. Pepper's ingredient list used to include lithium, then thought to be a cure for depression. Coca-cola, one of many sodas that used to contain trace levels of cocaine, was first marketed as a nerve tonic. And carbonated water—a fast-rising phenomenon thanks to new bottling technology—came with health claims of its own.
"It's interesting how the same sort of bullshit gets resold today, like Vitamin Water," says David Sax, author of The Tastemakers, a book on food trends. "All these sodas started out as the functional medicines of their day. They were sweetened to make them more palatable."
Sax pointed out another connection between celery and the soda business: the Jews who worked in the industry. During the 19th century, the majority of New York's Jewish immigrants came from Eastern Europe, and many of them found work in the soda business. "They were involved in the sugar industry in Poland and the Ukraine. Largely, beet sugar," Sax explained. Working with soda was a natural extension, and celery was a flavor they knew well from the old country.
A flavor like celery seed, he continued, wasn't that unusual. Savory, botanical beverages were more common back then in Eastern European cuisines, like the Ukrainian fermented beverage of lettuce kvass. Effervescent and refreshing yet decidedly vegetal, it was just one of many savory drinks that helped lay the groundwork for celery soda.
"In Eastern European cuisine, there is a tradition of taking traditionally savory ingredients and fermenting them to make beverages," said Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a young don in the new Jewish food movement and one of the people behind New York's Gefilteria. "You have bread kvass, which tastes kind of like a rye loaf with an added oomph, and beet kvass, which tastes a lot like beet borscht."
Still, Cel-Ray, was very much a product of its time: a confluence of health trends, emerging industry, and Old World history. More remarkable is its persistence today.
"I don't pick up a Cel-Ray and say, 'wow, that is amazing.' I say, 'that is a carbonated celery drink.' It is what it says it is," Peck told me while laughing. "As a result, there's so many kudos we can send out to Dr. Brown's, because it was a perfect storm. Every indicator would suggest that Cel-Ray should not have the survivability it has."
Dr. Brown's survived, in part, because it was sold exclusively in delis until the 1980s, when the Jewish delicatessen started to decline. In a New York Times article from 1984, Harry Gold, Dr. Brown's director of brand development at the time, was quoted as saying, "'we enjoyed a tremendous loyalty from the delis in New York that we first started selling to 60 to 70 years ago. We reciprocated that loyalty by not making the product available anywhere else.'" The soda became inseparable from the very idea of the Jewish experience in New York, even for someone like my Irish Catholic father, who spent weekends on the Irish Riviera.
Today, Cel-Ray is far from Dr. Brown's best-selling product; the company also sells flavors like black cherry, ginger gale, cream, and orange soda. LA Bottleworks, which purchased J&R Bottling in December of 2013, packages about 5,000 cases of glass bottles a year. At the Fizzary, customers split 65/35 between those "who nine out of ten times make a reference to pastrami" and others "wavering between it or something like bubble gum soda."
Instead, celery soda enjoys a cult following, one whose sphere of influence is spreading across America with and beyond the New York Jewish diaspora. New York City restaurants like Joe & Misses Doe and Northern Spy Food Co. offer cocktails inspired by the soda, made with their own celery syrup. At San Francisco's Trick Dog, bartenders serve a fizzy, refreshing highball made of Cel-Ray and caraway-blitzed aquavit (and a delicious non-alcoholic version mixed with pineapple).
At his San Francisco stores, Peck carries four varieties of cucumber soda, but only one celery. He's betting that will change as more and more soda-lovers rediscover the power of botanical flavors. Some companies are making celery soda, like Berkeley's Saul's Restaurant & Deli and Montreal's Savouré (where it's a celery green grape). Gefilteria's Yoskowitz has tested celery soda for private events with his company and will include a recipe in his forthcoming cookbook.
"The reason Cel-Ray is going to come around is, everyone is getting into this botanical groove. Integrating any sort of botanical ingredients from 1850 to 1920 is absolutely in the cross hairs of people looking to get creative," Peck said. "There's only so many ingredients you can pick from that still exist today. Cel-Ray is of course front and center. But the world isn't asking for more celery drinks."
Or maybe it is? Walking across the Williamsburg Bridge last week, I told my girlfriend how pleased I was that she even thought Cel-Ray was just okay. "No, it was actually really good," she said, as we descended into the former tenements of the Lower East Side.