The Last of the Seltzer Men
Long ago, before there were Perrier and San Pellegrino and two-liter bottles of carbonated water, there was seltzer. It came in glass bottles hand-filled in your neighborhood, and featured a special valve, a siphon, designed to keep all the bubbles inside, thus maximizing fizz. To serve the soda water, you squeezed the siphon's trigger. In many North American homes in the last century, this carbonated water was the drink of choice. And where there was seltzer, there were seltzer men. They filtered municipal water, injected it with carbon dioxide, and filled bottles by the case, then delivered them to your door. Seltzer was once so commonplace, particularly in Jewish areas, that it was called the Jewish champagne.
Since then, seltzer has almost disappeared from the cultural lexicon—almost. A handful of seltzer men keep up the trade in New York, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco, and in Toronto, where I live, Canada's last seltzer man continues the tradition. He is 37-year-old Frank Samel of Magda Soda Water, a former world champion swimmer and swim coach. He now washes, fills, and delivers cases of the same glass bottles his father once washed, filled, and delivered when he arrived in Canada from Hungary more than 50 years ago.
"It's pretty effervescent," she said. "Sometimes there would be that spritz of water that would whack you in the face."
Samel also uses much of the same equipment his dad worked when he was hired at Magda in 1959 (he eventually bought the company from the owner, and Samel bought it from him). There is the carbonator that puts the fizz in the water, made in 1935, and a bottle filler that is more than a century old; time has almost entirely rusted away the metal of the safety cage. He put new siphons on the original glass bottles, but he has not found anyone to make new ones, so he also uses bottles that belonged to the competition: Jersey Creme, Roma Soft Drinks, the Toronto Siphon Company—all founded in the late 1800s and closed in the 1970s and '80s. "We're the youngest soda water company out of all the ones that are left," he said. He's so concerned about his bottles that he only takes customers who come with referrals.
Although Canadians have almost forgotten old-style seltzer, New Yorkers in particular are still familiar with the drink, said filmmaker Jessica Edwards, whose evocative short ﬁlm Seltzer Works, shown at numerous festivals including Toronto's Hot Docs, canonizes one of that city's last seltzer men. Her subject, a third-generation seltzer filler in Brooklyn, Kenny Gomberg, recalls an era when women were home during the day to receive deliveries. "As a drink, it speaks to a different time," said Edwards, who grew up in Toronto. "It refers to a time and place we don't have anymore."
How you drink seltzer depends on your culture, Samel said. "A lot of Hungarians will drink it with wine and make it a spritzer. Some say a true Hungarian will drink it straight. Other nationalities will drink it with milk with chocolate syrup." This combination is called an egg cream and was invented in a New York soda fountain, and you can still order it today (though up here, north of the 44th parallel, if you tried to order an egg cream you would likely be met with a blank stare). Samel prefers his seltzer with sour cherry syrup. There's also a huge connection between seltzer and Jews, according to Edwards. She traces it to Jewish cuisine. "It probably felt good after eating tons of really heavy Jewish food like brisket," she said.
If you drink your Magda Soda Water straight, the flavor is neutral—the company once added salt, but Samel has eliminated it to suit modern-day tastes. Indeed, just when it seemed seltzer might die with its last few octogenarian fans, a new generation is taking interest in the drink, Edwards said. Joyce Grant, a customer of Samel's for two years, heard about him from her neighbors, who are also clients. She switched from Perrier because of the carbon footprint, and pays $12 for a case of six one-liter bottles Samel himself delivers to her door. Unlike those bottles of club soda that quickly lose their fizz once you twist the lid, she said, Magda seltzer retains its bubbles to the last squirt, thanks to the siphon. "The bubbles are similar to Perrier. It's pretty effervescent," she said. "Sometimes there would be that spritz of water that would whack you in the face."
Samel's client list is a lot smaller than his father's once was, but he is hoping his business will grow by word of mouth. And as young families take an interest in where their food comes from, that goes for their water, too.