The Celery Soda Chronicles

Chasing a pastrami sandwich with a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda may be a time-honored New York tradition, but down South Eudora Welty drank her celery, too.
eudora welty

I’m just back from New York City, where I ate very well: soft-shelled crabs, entangled with ramps, at the restaurant Butter. Spaghetti with tomato sauce at Scarpetta. Fennel salami at Salumeria Rosi.

I drank well, too: Mint juleps at Eleven Madison Park. Sparkling Grüner Veltliner at Co. And bottle after bottle of rosé at every darn place I sat down.

Speaking of drinks, while getting my annual pastrami dose at Katz’s, I downed a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. (When visiting Manhattan, I’ve always considered it an act of temporary assimilation to drink a can or three.)

Upon returning home to Oxford, Mississippi, I regaled my friends with tales of New York City. Everyone oohed and aahed at the appropriate times—until I got to the celery soda. That’s when they made funny faces.

I tried to tell them how the vegetal taste of the soda played well off the smoked-beef punch of pastrami. I told them that I could imagine celery soda pairing nicely with a coleslaw-capped barbecued pork sandwich, too.

My Oxford friends didn’t buy the argument. I wasn’t able to recall it at the time, but I knew I had—somewhere in the deep dark recesses of my mind—a trump card for these Southern naysayers. And then it hit me:

As a child, Eudora Welty rode her bike to the neighborhood grocery on summer afternoons, to buy a bottle of Lake’s Celery soda. In “The Little Store,” the Jackson, Mississippi-born author wrote: “What else could it be called? It was made by a Mr. Lake out of celery.” She continued, “You drank on the premises, with feet set wide apart to miss the drip, and gave him back his bottle.”

From about 1915 until 1925, residents of Jackson relished Lake’s Celery. (A bit more digging revealed that J.C. Mayfield, who opened the Birmingham-based Celery Cola Company in 1899, likely popularized the beverage among Southerners.)

Down here in Mississippi, where Welty trumps all—except, of course, William Faulkner—I’m planning a barbecue for next weekend. With this knowledge in hand, I figure that if I mix Cel-Ray, gin, and soda in equal proportions and dub the resulting drink a Eudora, I’ll get a few takers.

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