LaCroix might be all the rage right now, but seltzer has a storied history that's being lost in its food trend ascendance.
For the past couple years, seltzer and its variants (sparkling water, soda water, club soda) have found a new identity as the it beverage thanks to LaCroix. From 2010 to 2015, the midwestern sparkling water company's sales rocketed from $65 million to $226 million. In that time, LaCroix captured the hearts of many a young hip professional, its bubbles flavored with pamplemousse (why use the French word for grapefruit?), or a mix of flavors like LaCroix's line called cúrate (Spanish for "cure yourself," which, again, why?). Its cans don a magnificently gaudy design—so hideous you end up falling in love. Mary H.K. Choi described it in a letter of recommendation for The New York Times Magazine, as "simultaneously obnoxious and earnest, as if they're trying to appeal to Canadian ravers or the sort of people who have septum piercings and shop at Desigual." The internet continues to find new ways to buzz about LaCroix—most recently with a can customizer briefly blowing up Twitter the other week.
Foods trend. They hit a ceiling. Then they fall. Yes, I'm afraid, we have reached the end of peak seltzer.
As the customized LaCroix cans began to dominate my timeline—I admittedly participated—I was nonetheless seized by a twinge of rage. Seltzer isn't a fucking trend to me; it's always been my beverage of choice, which has nothing to do with an ironically cool can design or using the French word for "grapefruit." Rather I'm a New York Jew and that's what we do. We drink seltzer.
Now, sparkling water has ostensibly been around forever. San Pellegrino has been bottling sparkling mineral water since the 12th century. Artificially carbonated water came much later, with the British scientist and philosopher Joseph Priestley inventing an apparatus to artificially carbonate water—using an actual animal bladder—in 1772.
Seltzer and New York Jews, however, have a unique history. When Eastern European Jews immigrated to New York's Lower East Side in the late 19th century, they took "to drinking soda water, perhaps because it was the cheapest beverage on the market except for water," reports Israeli newspaper Haaertz. "Seltzer was once so commonplace, particularly in Jewish areas, that it was called the Jewish champagne," The Atlantic says. (Dr. Brown's Cel-ray, a celery soda that's a far Jew-ier beverage than seltzer, also been referred to as Jewish champagne.) When Canada Dry started marketing flavored seltzers in the mid-80s, the New York Times reported that so few people outside the New York area had familiarity with the word, "the company had to include the phrase 'sparkling water' on packaging." Seltzer, in fact, is a Yiddish version of Seltsers, a small town in Germany known for its mineral water.
Even though I've been downing seltzer since I was a young kid, I'm not your typical New York City Jew. I never set foot in a synagogue except for some classmates' bar mitzvahs, never went to Hebrew school, or got to delight in the goodness of Challah or Matzoh Ball soup. (Although I did eat heartily, even on Yom Kippur—that's the one where you're supposed to fast, right?) Growing up some blocks north of the Lower East Side in the East Village, my family celebrated Hanukkah on occasion, mostly because kids want holidays. My parents were artists, disdainful enough of their own upbringings that they didn't passed along many cultural traditions to us. I reasoned I was Jewish only in an ethnic sense—my hair a tangle of distinctly Jewish curls I dutifully blow dried and ironed out after every wash.
The only part of Jewish culture that was constant in my house was seltzer. We never drank water. Just lots and lots and lots of seltzer. My mom used to order one-liter bottles of Vintage by the case from our local Associated supermarket, until she sprung for a SodaStream in the mid-2000s, ushering our family into seltzer paradise, no longer forced to endure the flatness of a ¾-empty bottle of Vintage. Making our own seltzer allowed my family to enjoy the beverage in a similar (but far more high-tech) way to my father's ancestors, who immigrated to the Lower East Side and Bronx from Eastern Europe—before ultimately settling in Brooklyn—in the early 20th century.
My dad—who is, by the way, a historian, continuing the great tradition of Jewish intellectualism—says his father's side of family drank seltzer. He tells me, "I remember seeing seltzer bottles with the trigger at the brownstone apartment of my grandma Rose on Euclid Avenue in Brooklyn." His mother's family, however, stopped drinking seltzer around 1948. "Bubby Fanny," he explains, "was controlled by health food nut aunt Sylvia who would have forbid seltzer." The story feels weirdly comforting to hear, a history of people related to me who I never got to know, living in the same borough as I do now, full of stereotypical Jewish neuroses I also happen to have. (Thank god mine don't interfere with my seltzer.)
When LaCroix began trending, I started to feel protective of my love of seltzer. I wasn't really feeling protective of carbonated water, but rather of my identity as a New York Jew. Like any good Manhattanite, I've always felt comfortable asserting my New York-ness, my throaty accent occasionally emerging on a night of heavy drinking or with my sister, kvetching about gentrification or telling stories of my wild East Village teen years. Clearly, my Jewish identity has been more difficult for me to come to terms with. I can, and still do, straighten out my Jew curls. I haven't celebrated a Jewish holiday in almost 10 years. My last name doesn't even obviously mark me a Jew. But my unquenchable thirst for seltzer reminded me that not only am I real Jew, but that feeling a connection to my ethnicity is important to me.
"City tap water [is] commonly understood to be the reason for the quality of New York's pizza and bagels," writes Brendan O'Connor for The Awl, so fizzing it yourself is essential to the authentic New York seltzer experience. There is something delightful about the simplicity of homemade New York City seltzer—the best tap water in the world, (well, at least in the region)—infused with that magical kick of carbon dioxide. There's a purity to plain seltzer; transforming old water into something ineffably refreshing. Something uncool. Something familiar.
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