Dress British Drink Yiddish: Cel-Ray Soda

I have started to get the feeling most of the world has not heard of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, as it wasn't for sale anywhere in Minneapolis when I was a child, and I would only see it in delicatessens in New York when visiting family there. In fact, it was only available in these delicatessens, for reasons I will detail in a moment. But that still doesn't excuse the general cultural ignorance of the rest of America, as Cel-Ray, often simply called Celery Tonic, has made appearances as a heroic prop in films such as "Serpico," "Funny Lady" (it's all James Caan drinks in the film), "Tootsie," and "A Chorus Line." It's even mentioned in a Seinfeld episode, and if people could learn and remember babka from Sienfeld, they can learn and remember Cel-Ray.

I recently watched "Isn't She Great," the somewhat frantic biopic of "Valley of the Dolls" author Jacqueline Susann. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick includes a scene in which he sends a WASPy editor, played, appropriately, by David Hyde Pierce, to edit Susann's manuscript, but is constantly interrupted by deli-based irritations. These are usually generated by Nathan Lane as Susann's husband Irving Mansfield, and in one scene he walks around bellowing for celery tonic.

So Cel-Ray isn't just a weird soda -- if you haven't had it, it literally tastes exactly like celery. It's a deli soda, and, more than that, it's a Jewish soda; the New York Times wrote about it in 2011, saying that it has been called the "Jewish champagne" since at least the 1930s. There is a long and detailed history of the soda on Serious Eats, but here are the highlights:

It's an old drink, dating back to 1868, and was informed by Eastern European savory and lightly fermented drinks like kvass. Cel-Ray was long marketed as a health drink, thus the reason why it is often called a "tonic" long after the FDA decreed it shoudn't be, which happened a shockingly long time ago: 1900. Even as American tastes started moving toward sweeter sodas, Cel-Ray retained its popularity with Jewish diners, who felt it paired especially well with salty, meaty dishes, and so Dr. Brown's continued producing the stuff and selling it in New York delis, and did not offer it elsewhere.

But the deli has declined and Cel-Ray's customer base has expanded, to the point where it is relatively easy to buy it in New York, and is drunk by a wide variety of New Yorkers who apparently have no idea that the rest of the world doesn't know that this is a thing that is done, and would find anyone who did this to be mad. It has also become almost inconsequentially easy to order the stuff via the Internet, and so, while the traditional deli may be in decline, we are at a strange moment when just about anybody can enjoy something that was once unique to the deli.

And thank goodness, because even if you are unsure about just drinking a celery flavored soda, I can tell you unambiguously that Cel-Ray is a dynamite cocktail ingredient. It can easily be subbed in for any drink that requires seltzer, and generally imparts a slight umami quality without tasting specifically like celery -- especially in drinks that use lemon or lime, Cel-Ray creates a subtly deeper flavor, and a welcome one.

But there is one drink in particular that I have found especially benefits from Cel-Ray: The Bloody Mary. Don't be shy with the stuff either -- add in at least two shots of Cel-Ray per drink, just enough to give the cocktail a light effervescence. As deli patrons long ago discovered, Cel-Ray pairs perfectly with thick, savory flavors, and the Bloody Mary is the thickest, most savory cocktail I know. It's so thick that the celery soda doesn't even thin out the drink appreciably, but instead imparts that recognizable peppery/radishy celery flavor, which many people already associate with the Bloody Mary thanks to the use of celery salt on the glass rim.

In fact, using Cel-Ray in the cocktail frees you up to explore different sorts of salts on the rim. We have used creole seasoning with great success, but that's not an especially Jewish choice. Here's an opportunity for a little mixological innovation. I suspect just about any deli spice would go along with this drink, especially the sort of spice rub that delis use to flavor their meat, which typically includes onion, garlic, pepper, and coriander. Or one might attempt a return to the sorts of Eastern European flavors that originally produced Cel-Ray, including dill, paprika, horseradish (already popular in Bloody Marys), and mustard.

Anyway, obviously this version needs a Jewish name, and I have a suggestion: While there are multiple origin stories for the Bloody Mary, one of them credits the drink to a Harlem-born Jewish New York entertainer who frequented the 21 Club, a claim that is supported by a 1939 article by gourmand and columnist Lucius Beebe. Whether the Bloody Mary was actually invented by this entertainer will forever be in dispute, but let's at least name this version, made with the Jewish champagne, after the man.

Let's call it the Georgie Jessel.