“We’re here not only to talk about seltzer, but an entire book on seltzer,” said the Forest Hills resident, who is nicknamed “The Effervescent Jew.” “It all started in 2004, when I heard that there was a new product on the market for making your own seltzer called Soda-Club, which today is called SodaStream. I thought if I could write a product review, I can get a free product.”
An English chemist named Joseph Priestley created the first man-made glass of carbonated water, hoping 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,” Joseph quipped.
“Seltzertopia” spotlights the seltzer men and women who transformed a hobby into a passion, including an 18th century minister who “invented” seltzer to save the British navy, Jewish people who expressed their love for egg creams, “The Three Stooges” turning seltzer siphons into carbonated comedy, and Randy Miller, the CEO of Original New York Seltzer, who leaped off a building in the 1980s with a bottle in hand to emphasize his love.
Carolyn Hessel, the former executive director of The Jewish Book Council, had many family members in the seltzer business.
“She asked, 'why don’t you write a book on seltzer?'” Joseph said. 'I thought it was a crazy idea, but for many things she told me over the years, she was always right. I can barely write this review, but maybe if I talk to people, I can find out what’s really going on.”
He learned how seltzer impacts people by approaching them on the street or subway, eventually conducting over 100 interviews.
“I heard one passionate story after another, but what is the story of seltzer?” he told the crowd at the Forest Hills Library. “A bunch of anecdotes will not turn into a book. In 2006, I began thinking of trends and noticed a few.
“I connected with living seltzer men and women still active today, and had a chance to go into their worlds by visiting their soda work, traveling with them on their delivery route, and I generally saw the world of seltzer from their unique point of view,” he added.
He explored some key areas, ranging from health (seltzer was thought of as a cure-all for just about anything hundreds of years ago), yummy refreshment, and how seltzer became integrated with ethnic identity and humor.
“It all began in Germany in a very small town called Niederselters, whose very name ‘selters’ means ‘salty water,'” he said. “It was named for the exceedingly endless supply of mineralized carbonated water that people from all over the world would come to.”
During his talk, Joseph shared seltzer-inspired comedy segments from “The Three Stooges” to “Mary Tyler Moore” to “The Simpsons.”
“Seltzer in the comedic stage became a form of aggressive love,” he said. “Eventually, as Vaudeville disappeared and other humor came about, it tends to get associated with clowns, such as in a most famous episode of Mary Tyler Moore in the 70s.”
As for ethnic identity, Joseph said, “there’s no group that loves seltzer more than the Jewish people.”
He presented a satirical 1980s illustrated book titled “Up From Seltzer – A Handy Guide To Four Jewish Generations.” The first generation is characterized by “Seltzer water (fer 2 cents plain)” and the fourth generation is characterized by “Perrier water (fer 2 dollars, fancy).”
“The joke ended up being on the author,” Joseph said. “He’s saying they escaped from when they first came as immigrants and now they’re fully Americanized, but as it turns out, the arrival of Perrier in the 1970s turned into a revival not just for Perrier, but for all sparkling waters.”
As for his preferred seltzer, Joseph prefers what he prepares with his SodaStream from the convenience of his home.
“It is super sharp with nothing added.” Writing a book presented an array of memorable experiences. “My role is being seltzer advocate and being a storyteller of seltzer, but if a seltzer shop opened up, I’d be the first through its doors.
“Everyone likes to drink seltzer,” he said of his family, “from my youngest daughter to my older son and wife. We have seltzer at every meal and double bottles for Shabbat. Sometimes we bring out our special seltzer glasses, and other times we bring in special flavored seltzer just to do tastings and, of course, every once in a while we mix an egg cream.”