When my father was a boy, seltzer water was the traditional dinner drink at his grandparents' table. The bubbly stuff came in old-fashioned glass bottles, and he talks about spritzing it into a glass as if it were a miniature fire extinguisher and about its cool, refreshing taste. On special occasions, the kids would get "drunk" on seltzer, trying to feel grown-up.
For his 50th birthday a few years back, Dad asked for a seltzer bottle (called a siphon), complete with chrome-plated pewter nozzle top, inner glass tube and decorative label etched into the glass from pre-World War II days. He wanted to experience again the magic drink from his youth.
And so I met 71-year-old Julian Diamond of A-1 Seltzer & Beverage Co., a slight man with silver hair who now delivers wooden crates of old-fashioned seltzer to my grandmother's front porch. He arrives from his North Hollywood bottling plant by Volvo station wagon or Dodge van (depending on the day's delivery load), picks up the empties and even stops to say hi to the dog--a touch of personal service that apparently has not fizzled out.
Today, Diamond is one of only two seltzer water distributors of glass siphons in Southern California; the other is Fremor Seltzer in Van Nuys.
But in the first half of the 20th century, Diamond remembers, at least 500 bottling companies distributed glass siphons throughout Southern California. The 1920s and 1930s were the industry's heyday. By mid-century, however, just a handful of seltzer bottling companies remained in Southern California, including Arrowhead, Sparkletts and Shasta.
According to "The Jewish Almanac" by Richard Siegel and Carl Rheins, Eastern European immigrants continued their usual practice of drinking seltzer water when they settled in this country in the 1890s. The seltzer industry slumped in the 1950s because disposable bottles and mixed sodas became popular. Diamond also cites the introduction of carbon dioxide tanks in bars around this time, which eliminated the need for siphon bottles.
Diamond is the third generation in a family home-delivery business that started in England and moved to Los Angeles just after the turn of the century. Several hundred customers are on the A-1 route (Diamond has delivery help from four other employees), and if you talk seltzer with this man, you'll catch a twinkle in his eye.
Seltzer, Diamond speculates, is the key to long life: His mother is still a seltzer-drinker at 102. In fact, the word "seltzer" comes from Niederselters, Germany, whose natural pools of carbonated water were said to ease digestion.
Because what Diamond sells today is purified carbonated water--both salt- and sugar-free--it is a healthful beverage. And if you'd like a little flavor, he also offers an East Coast treat: Fox's U-Bet syrup. Lemon-lime, raspberry, root beer, cola, vanilla, strawberry, cherry and classic chocolate flavors come in 24-ounce jars; they also can be found in the kosher section of most supermarkets. Mix with seltzer and you've got homemade soda.
Or try an egg cream (no eggs or cream required). To make this New York delicacy, mix chocolate syrup with cold milk in a glass, squirt in cold seltzer and stir quickly until a foamy head peeks over the rim.
At home we also like to make ice cream floats (ice cream in a tall glass plus seltzer) and sometimes we toast each other with a version of what we call "the other bubbly" (apple juice mixed with seltzer).
What makes the seltzer so versatile is its simplicity. Diamond and his employees triple-filter regular city water, pump in carbon dioxide, then fill the sterilized bottles (he has about 40,000 on hand) through the siphon nozzles. Since the top valves stay sealed tight, they never lose pressure and the bubbles stay fresh to the very last drop.
The glass bottles come from all over the country. Diamond points to the etched-glass and colored labels on the sides--nostalgic reminders of now-defunct bottling companies. "There's no more to be had," Diamond explains.
The older bottles date to before 1920. And the blue- and green-colored glass ones are some of the scarcest siphons of all. So Diamond's return policy is clear: "They'd better, otherwise we shoot 'em."
I like to think he means with a spray of seltzer water. But I didn't ask.
A-1 Seltzer & Beverage Co., 6878 Beck Ave., North Hollywood, (818) 765-3879. One crate of seltzer (six bottles), $7.20 to $9.50 (price varies according to area). Fox's U-Bet syrup (24-ounce jar), $3.50 to $4.50 (price varies according to area).