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My Father’s Soda

October 9, 2009

As I mentioned Monday, these are Deli Days at the FLB.  On Tuesday I briefly mentioned how a real Jewish deli will stock Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, as it goes brilliantly with corned beef or pastrami sandwiches.

But Cel-Ray may not be for everyone.  And I think that is being generous.

I am told that celery-flavored tonic is an acquired taste.  I know exactly where I acquired mine: my father.  And since today is my dad’s birthday, I thought it would be a perfect excuse to write about how I came to love Cel-Ray.

But I will have to wait until next Thursday at 7:00 pm to see if this soda makes it into Professor Merwin’s lecture.   For those who still don’t know, he is a visiting scholar giving a free lecture at SUNY Albany on the Jewish Deli in America.  All the details are here.

As a child I lived in Brooklyn Heights.  It may not come as a surprise that a lot of my early memories are food memories.  There was a place we would go on our evening walks to see if they were serving banana frozen yogurt.  I remember getting gigantic Italian submarine sandwiches from Blimpie’s, which may have been better in the 1970s than it is today.  And I could never forget the Good Humor ice cream man who would come by the local playground.

But none of these were really formative experiences.

Sometimes my family would go into the city and spend the day at the Museum of Natural History.  It was a stunning place for a young boy (which reminds me that I must take Young Master Fussy in the near future).

Lunch at the museum was a formative experience.

My father would always get the same thing.  And I as his dutiful son would want exactly what he had: a hot dog with mustard, sauerkraut and relish with a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray to drink.  Seriously, those flavors and flavor combinations are nestled in a deep part of my psyche that trigger memories of what was really a wonderful childhood in New York.

I didn’t have a full understanding at the time that we were Jewish.  But without knowing it, I had been imprinted.  My father had given me a taste for my cultural heritage.  Smoked fatty meat, with mustard, some form of cabbage, some form of pickle and a Cel-Ray to wash it all down is for me the quintessential New York Jewish culinary experience.

There is a saying in Hebrew, “L’dor vador” and it means, “From generation to generation.”  We are instructed to pass down our inherited cultural wisdom to our children, and our children’s children.  Some people think that you are Jewish if your grandparents are Jewish, but my old rabbi would say, “You are Jewish if your grandchildren are Jewish.”

When Young Master Fussy was born, we were living in Berkeley, California.  There was no hot dog vendor that also sold Cel-Ray.  We hardly had a decent deli.  The closest thing we had was Saul’s Delicatessen.  And if you had not been to New York in a few years and forgotten what a real deli tasted like, it wasn’t too bad.

The kiddo doesn’t get a lot of sweet things to drink.  But when we would go to Saul’s, I would share a few sips of my special soda.  That is, until Young Master Fussy started asking for a Cel-Ray all to himself, which of course I was happy to get for him.

The waiter saw this two-year old gleefully drinking a soda that most people can’t stand.

He says to me, “Starting them young?”
And I told him, “It’s the only way.”

Because it is.  For the record, Mrs. Fussy was horrified.  It turns out that she is still horrified.  But the cultural wisdom I learned from my father has been passed along.  I hope that when my son grows up he will continue to learn from the rich tradition of Judaism.  Certainly he has cultivated a taste for it.

Happy birthday dad.  Thank you for everything.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. NY Deli Man permalink
    October 9, 2009 4:36 pm

    I’m not a CelRay guy, but like your father, my dad liked it too. I tended towards Dr. Brown Black Cherry if I wanted just a soda without any food. I saw one of the chefs use that soda when making Baked Apples.

    If I am eating any kind of “Jewish” food, just plain seltzer will do the job.

  2. October 9, 2009 9:43 pm

    When the sodas of our fathers visit us we do not have to play host. We can banish them with forgiveness.

    Biblical humor aside, I was touched by this particular fussy post. My father was a little more removed and gruff, the main family tradition that he passed on to me was that it is effete for a man to smile in public (him and my granpa’ chewed iron, I swear). He did love good food and drink though, and I too am trying to pass this on to my wee ‘un, young Giblet. Mrs. Dave will surely shudder at the exotic morsels that I will, in the future, let her sample.

  3. Annie permalink
    October 21, 2009 7:02 pm

    I join you in wishing Dad a happy birthday and hate to admit that it’s a taste I failed to acquire.. But I didn’t escape it’s nostalgia. Hope to take the young fusspot to the Natural History Museum now that it’s in my neighborhood.


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