It's hard to believe but Niki Russ Federman, the fourth-generation manager of that venerable temple of appetizing, Russ & Daughter’s, cannot stomach the taste of Dr.Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. Yes, it's true. I discovered this startling nugget of information while grabbing a can of the sparkling green elixir to accompany a meshugge sandwich. As I cracked it open, she looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re one of those.” For a moment I thought I’d made a gaffe as big as shmearing mayo on a pastrami sandwich. After all, I consider my taste for Cel-Ray something that marks me as a connoisseur.
Since she’s a good sport, Russ volunteered to try a can, just to see if her distaste had changed. No dice. “I cannot lie, Cel-Ray gives me no joy. I can’t say that I had some traumatic childhood experience with it. Some folks have a visceral distaste for certain foods like cilantro or beets. For me, it’s bitter flavors.”
Since someone with roots as deep in the city's Jewish foodways could dislike the drink some call "Jewish Champagne," I decided to put the question to other prominent New York City food authorities of Jewish descent.
First up, Josh “Mr. Cutlets” Ozersky of the Feedbag. He’s clearly in the hater camp: “Cel-Ray is a nasty, bilious tonic forced upon this generation by the Jewish martyr complexes of the prior one. They grew up eating the bitter herbs that reminded them of slavery and they thought that people should eat bad things as a penance for our crimes. It’s like a Yom Kippur beverage.” Cutlets first made the Freudian slip of saying “toxic” before “tonic.” Anyone who eats the way he does would do well not to look a gift tonic in the mouth.
Next, I asked Arthur Schwartz, author of Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited, what he thought of the stuff. Like many a lover of fatty deli meats, Schwartz considers the celery-flavored fizzy water a perfect foil. “It cuts through the unctuousness and spice of pastrami and salami. I am old enough to remember when it was called Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic, a name with dignity. Even though the U.S. labeling police say it isn't a tonic, just ‘soda,’ I think it is as tonic as dandelion greens in the spring.”
Lastly I turned to Jay Parker, owner of Ben’s Best in my native Rego Parkistan. My go-to lunch there is a half pastrami sandwich ordered juicy, washed down with a can of Cel-Ray. “It’s an acquired taste," Parker admitted. "The first time I had it as a kid I didn’t like it. I drink it from time to time. It has very limited appeal, but those that love it love it.” Apparently Parker sells a lot of it. Last night when I stopped in for a restorative bowl of Ben’s Jewish Penicillin, AKA matzo ball soup, they were out of the Jewish Champagne.
So how do you feel about Cel-Ray? Admittedly, I’m a card-carrying Cel-Ray lover. I’ve even topped off a Blood Mary with a splash, thus creating a Bloody Moira. And I’m especially intrigued by this recipe for a gin-based cocktail called the Ray-Ray. Cel-Ray and Tanqueray? Who knew?