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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: June 2023

Dr. Brown's Sodas

Seth D Kramer

Dr. Brown's Sodas Perez

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I have always been a big fan of Jewish delicatessens. I grew up in Los Angeles, a city where delicatessens are plentiful, but often considered—in the delicatessen universe—as an “associate” compared to the “senior partner” of New York City. But that paradigm may be shifting. In his book “Save the Deli,” writer David Sax boldly asserts that Los Angeles has replaced New York as the leading Deli City in America.

Going to delicatessens was an integral part of my childhood. Although my order for breakfast would vary, ordering lunch in a Jewish delicatessen was very ritualistic in nature. For me, it was always a corned beef or a pastrami sandwich. The sandwich was always ordered on rye bread, with some mustard and a side of kosher dill pickles. And accompanying  the sandwich was a large scoop of either coleslaw or potato salad. Absent some cataclysmic event—that was always the order.

And the order ALWAYS included a Dr. Brown’s soda. The brand’s six flavors—Cream Soda, Black Cherry, Root Beer, Orange Soda, and the always mysterious Cel-Ray, plus a couple of diet versions—are all available in Dr. Brown’s signature long-neck bottles. The sodas were all clearly identified as kosher, so they were ideal to serve in Jewish delicatessens. They were the perfect accoutrement to the delicatessen dining experience.

In fact, Dr. Brown’s sodas were so synonymous with delicatessens that it seemed to be the only place to get a Dr. Brown’s soda. However, some flavors can be found at upscale grocery stores.

Growing up, my favorite flavor was Black Cherry. It has a nice, not overpowering, fruity flavor added to the base of a cola. The website describes it as “lightly sweet, kosher and loaded with natural tasting cherry flavor.” However, my brother’s flavor of choice was Root Beer—a classic. My mother and sisters were partial to Cream Soda, which had a subtle—yet definitive—vanilla flavor.

But my dad favored Dr. Brown’s signature flavor, Cel-Ray. Labeled as celery soda, the beverage has a unique taste. Cel-Ray tastes like Cream Soda without the vanilla, and Ginger Ale without the ginger. The current ingredient label lists “extracts of celery seed with other natural flavors.”

Although the history of Dr. Brown’s is somewhat unclear, the company legend is that the brand was started by a New York doctor in 1869 who sold a tonic of celery seed, carbonated water, and sugar that supposedly calmed nerves.

In essence, Cel-Ray is a very botanical drink, requiring a mature palate to fully appreciate the flavor. It was not a soda that a young person could easily negotiate—in fact, it was intimidating.

But as I have gotten older, I have come to favor the drink more and recognize how well it pairs with deli food. Ordering it seems like an adult thing to do—a rite of passage for a lifelong delicatessen patron. It is now my go-to soft drink to accompany my corned beef or pastrami sandwich.