Regardless of whether you have tried Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, you likely have an opinion about it. With its grassy smell and vegetal flavor, it’s one of those foods — like licorice or Vegemite — that one either craves or despises with equal vigor. For some, it’s an essential part of the deli experience, with the elixir’s effervescent bubbles providing a refreshing counterpoint to meaty cuisine. Like an egg cream, Cel-Ray embodies nostalgia in a glass.
Now, thanks to the parallel food and drink trends of nouveau Jewish cuisine, retro soda fountains and artisanal cocktails, Cel-Ray is enjoying a modest culinary revival — as a soda, an element in creative cocktails and, perhaps most surprisingly, as a cooking ingredient.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have recently proposed a ban on the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces, hoping to curb the city’s obesity problem. But back in 1869, when Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic was first introduced, public opinion on the herbaceous fizzy water was largely favorable. Carbonated drinks called to mind the mineral water health spas favored by the era’s homeopaths. And celery in particular was viewed as a 19th-century “superfood,” thought to hold curative powers for a range of ailments, from anxiety to indigestion.
According to company legend at J & R Bottling, which took over production of Cel-Ray’s glass bottles in 1974 (but not cans; those are produced by Pepsi), there was indeed a real Dr. Brown — a New York City physician who doled out spoonfuls of concentrated celery tonic to patients suffering from stomach trouble. “Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food” cookbook confirms that in the early years, Cel-Ray was considered “a real tonic, a health drink.” It was not the only one, either: Cel-Ray had dozens of 19th- and 20th-century contemporaries, including Dr. Carpenter’s Celery & Phosphate, from California, and Sedgwick & Smith Celery Tonic, from Iowa.
Yet only Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray would endure — following other sodas from pharmacy to soda fountain — and eventually become a staple in New York City delicatessens. Schwartz writes that, until the mid-1980s, Cel-Ray was sold exclusively in delis. Dr. Brown’s early kosher status (Coca-Cola, by comparison, did not receive kosher certification until the 1930s) helped solidify its identity as a Jewish soda.