I doff my cap to Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda

Illustration for article titled I doff my cap to Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda
Photo: Kevin Pang

On Christmas Day, I found myself at Kaufman’s, a legendary delicatessen in the greater Chicago area. (The Chinese going out for Jewish food on Christmas, oh inversion of expectations!) I’ve always felt a kindred gastronomic spirit between the Chinese and the Jews—unctuous hunks of corned beef deckle (as rich as Dong Po pork), a variety of smoked fishes (the Chinese love fatty proteins smoked with tea leaves), chicken soups, minced fish balls, chopped liver salads. I brought my parents here and they loved everything I ordered.

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Frequenting a Jewish deli means I’ll get to drink a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. Not that I can’t buy a six-pack anytime of the year, but a Cel-Ray soda feels inextricably connected to the delicatessen experience. For me it’d be like ordering glogg wine on the Fourth Of July—I can, but I don’t.

Illustration for article titled I doff my cap to Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda
Photo: Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald (Getty Images)

Cel-Ray is a soda with flavors derived from celery seeds. The closest analog is ginger ale, but with a peppery undertow of spice (though I wouldn’t call it spicy). Our friends at Serious Eats have an excellent primer on Cel-Ray’s backstory, but the key points are that it was first sold in 1868 as “celery tonic,” back when celery (and carbonated water) were thought to have medicinal properties.

I suppose you could claim the savoriness and peppered spice of Cel-Ray plays off against the clove flavors in the pastrami, or some other bullshit foodie explanation—me, I just like the flavor. It feels appropriate to the environs. It sounds discordant—like watermelon and feta, like peanut butter and jelly—but it works. It’s just not the same eating a corned beef triple decker (with a scoop of chicken liver salad) sandwich with a 7-Up. Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda is a “When in Rome” beverage—so says this fresser.

Kevin Pang was the founding editor of The Takeout, and director of the documentary For Grace.

DISCUSSION

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When I was a kid, it was Jewish delis every weekend, and maybe once a week as well, helped connect me to our roots, I suppose was the idea. When given the choice, I always eschewed Cel-Ray for a Dr. Brown’s cream soda or a house-made egg cream. Maybe some day now that I’m a grown person I’ll give it a shot, but man their cream soda is good.

I do love the idea of Chinese folk going out for Jewish food on Christmas, that’s delightful, Kevin!