Gettin’ Fizzy With It

'Tis the season for a glass of bubbly—but this episode we're not talking champagne, we're talking seltzer. America is in the throes of a serious seltzer craze, with consumption of the bubbly stuff doubling in only a decade, from 2004 to 2014. But where does seltzer come from, and why is it called "seltzer," rather than simply "sparkling water"? Is there any truth to the rumors that seltzer can combat indigestion—or that it will rot our teeth? Why are all the hipsters crushing cans of LaCroix, and what's the story behind Polar's ephemeral sensation, Unicorn Kisses?

Before the advent of modern medicine, people who suffered from a variety of ailments frequently knew neither the cause of their symptoms nor the treatment. As a result, various cure-alls were touted as the solutions for almost everything. One of those all-powerful medicines was the naturally carbonated water that bubbled to the surface in springs around the world, and spas sprung up where visitors could "take the waters" in order to cure everything from biliousness to nervous afflictions.

As Barry Joseph, who's working on a book about the historical and cultural significance of seltzer, Seltzertopia: The Effervescent Agetold us, Niederselters in Germany was, in the 1700s, one of the best-known of these spas. The town bottled their spa water in clay jugs that they shipped around the world. In every country, the name of the drink morphed slightly, from "seltz suyu" in Turkey to "eau de seltz" in France to "seltzer" in America. In English, the name stuck.


John Matthews' tomb, Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

In this episode of Gastropod, we trace seltzer's trajectory, aided by Joseph Priestley's discovery of a technique for artificially carbonating water, from medicine to mealtime treat. We visit New York's Green-Wood Cemetery to learn more about John Matthews, the "Soda Fountain King," who fueled nineteenth-century American's love for fizz using construction scrap from one of the world's largest Roman Catholic cathedrals. Sensory scientist Marcia Pelchat explains whether there's any science behind seltzer's health halo, and journalists Mary H. K. Choi and Steve Annear describe how long-established companies such as LaCroix and Polar have reinvented themselves to appeal to a new generation of seltzer obsessives. Pop, sip, and listen in now!

Episode Notes

Marcia Pelchat

Marcia Pelchat is a sensory scientist and associate member emerita of the Monell Chemical Senses Center. She is the co-author of a 2014 paper titled "Carbonation: A review of Sensory Mechanisms and Health Effects."

Barry Joseph

Barry Joseph is associate director for digital learning at the American Museum of Natural History—and he's also working on a book about the history and cultural importance of seltzer water: Seltzertopia: The Effervescent Age.

Jeff Richman, John Matthews, and Green-Wood Cemetery


Jeff Richman and Nicky looking at parts of John Matthews' soda fountain apparatus in the Green-Wood Cemetery archives. Photo by Geoff Manaugh.

Jeff Richman gave up his job as a lawyer to become the historian of Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery in 2009, and he has been uncovering the stories of the 561,000 people buried there ever since. Among them is John Matthews, the "Soda Fountain King." You can read Richman's posts about the Matthews monument and some of the artifacts related to Matthews that he has collected on the Green-Wood Cemetery blog.


The John Matthews Soda Fountain Company catalog, complete with hot soda dispenser. Photo by Nicola Twilley.


John Matthews' grave depicted as a tourist attraction in stereoscopic postcards of the time, in the collection of Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

Mary H. K. Choi and Steve Annear

Cultural correspondent Mary H. K. Choi confessed her LaCroix addiction in this New York Times article in 2015, while the Boston Globe's Steve Annear has indulged his obsession with Polar Seltzer by covering the furor over their Unicorn Kisses flavor, and by visiting their Worcester, Mass., factory for Boston Magazine.

Advertising & TV Clips


The original 1979 ad that introduced America to Perrier. Recognize that voice? It's Orson Welles.


Earworm alert: this is the Sodastream jingle that embedded itself in the brains of many Brits during the 1980s. Play at your own risk.


Rakeem's sublime homage to LaCroix, complete with eyebrows.


Charter TV3 is a TV station based in Worcester, Mass., the home of Polar Seltzer.

Vox explainer

Libby Nelson and Javier Zarracina's article for Vox, "Why LaCroix Sparkling Water is Suddenly Everywhere," explores the secrets to LaCroix's rise, including its breakthrough vehicle: office supply websites.

Transcript

For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

Comments

  1. Just to let you know about another case in which sparkling is the default choice: Gran Canaria, an island in the Canary Islands. Many years ago, tap water was not drinkable (most of our water comes from desalinization and in those days is was not very safe) so here people have always drunk bottled water. However, the most commonly available bottled water (Firgas – http://aguasdefirgas.com/) was sparkling. Thus, everywhere, if you do not specifically request “natural water” if you ask for a glass of water you will be served “sparkling”.

    Interestingly enough, even today most houses have two or three cases of water at home and there are delivery men all around town that bring these cases of water to the houses.

  2. I live in the UK and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it referred to as Seltzer over here (in fact I have previously wondered what the difference was between seltzer and sparkling water).
    I’ve also long been fascinated with the idea of proper old school soda fountains since my mum told me about them when we used to make ice cream together when I was a kid (in an old wooden salt and ice churn, though it did have a motor fortunately, unlike when she was a child and it was a team effort between all the children in her grandmother’s house to hand churn it). Sometimes we would make ice cream sodas, though always with plain sparkling water which gives them a nice dry edge rather than the sweet overkill of most commercial fizzy soft drinks.
    I believe there is a 1930’s style soda fountain in San Francisco which I really hope to visit some day. (Short Youtube Doc about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMLGIIL3vGs and their website: http://theicecreambarsf.com/ )

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