Like Chinese food and pickles, seltzer –– an effervescent spirit that has inspired dreams of cures for such diverse ailments as scurvy and indigestion –– is often associated with Jews. An ad for an at-home seltzer maker touts its product as part of the history of Jewish ingenuity: “Matzo, circa 1440 B.C. — Chicken Soup, circa 1280 A.D. — Homemade Seltzer, 2004.” Anecdotally, it is said that Jews came from Eastern Europe, the land of soda water, and brought this unique taste along with their baggage. But if this were true, why don’t our non-Jewish countrymen hold this same association?
I turned from oral history to medical experts, seeking the advice of my doctor. “The Jewish people suffer from a thousand and one gastro-intestinal problems,” he said. “But once they could burp? Wow!” (Unfortunately, since my doctor is also my father, it was not clear whether he was referring to all Jews or just to me and to my family.)
A character in Ben Katchor’s graphic novel, “The Jew of New York,” envisioned an endless supply of seltzer piped to homes from a carbonated Lake Erie. My seltzer dreams paled in comparison. All I wanted, in the privacy of my apartment, was to make my own seltzer.
An English chemist named Joseph Priestley created the first man-made glass of carbonated water. He had hoped to develop a means for slowing the decay of a rotting corpse. Priestley described his process with elaborate detail and hand-drawn diagrams in a 1772 paper to The Royal Society, titled “Impregnating Water With Fixed Air.” My own home brewing, however, needed no such diagrams. Recently I made my own discovery: the Fountain Jet Home Soda Maker, self-described as the number-one “home carbonation systems in the world.”
Of course, in modern times, such efforts at home carbonation no longer are required. Centuries ago, I would have had to travel to Niederselters, Germany, wherefrom the word “seltzer” derives, to drink from their natural pools of carbonated water. But because of entrepreneur John Mathews, who left England in 1842 and turned New York City into the epicenter of the seltzer revolution, now I can travel downstairs to my corner grocer for a two-liter bottle. Convenient, yes, but who wants to lug a bottle home every week?
The Israeli-owned Soda-Club manufactures the Soda Maker in its Jerusalem plant. It is a surprisingly simple device. The night before our Hanukkah party, after hours frying latkes, my wife and I decided to try it out. We filled the specially designed one-liter bottle with Brita-filtered, previously chilled water. I pushed back a small black lever on the top of the fountain to tilt the nozzle at a convenient angle. I inserted the open bottle and twisted a few times until it was good and stuck. It was that quick. Everything was in place. To turn water into seltzer, all I had to do was push a button.
With each firm press, a burst of carbonation shot through the bottle from the carbon dioxide canister hidden in the back. One. Two. Three times. Then a fourth for good measure. With a sharp twist of the bottle it fell free from the nozzle, ready to be capped.
If this actually worked, if this machine could turn my Brooklyn tap water into seltzer, it would feel as miraculous as one night’s worth of oil lasting for eight days. We poured our first glasses of homemade seltzer and raised them in a toast to Priestley, Mathews and all who followed in their visionary footsteps. I tipped back the glass, partly expecting the dullness of flat water. Instead, delightful bubbles danced down my throat and I let out a delicate belch, exquisitely satisfied. I had in my hands the holy grail of soda water, something only dreamed of in the crazy works of Ben Katchor: a supply of seltzer as accessible and plentiful as all the water in the New York City reservoirs.
Barry Joseph writes for the Forward occasionally. He would love to hear your own seltzer tales at email@example.com.