Seltzer Boy—Two Cents Plain

Green_ivied slats_2012-07-31

2015-02-15 – It seems that sparkling water is popular again. That’s what Jill Berman at the Huffington Post says. She says that “Sparkling Water Is the New Soda.” When she says “soda” she means “pop.”

And when she says “sparkling water,” of course, she means “seltzer.”

I’ve been drinking seltzer for many years. So I am ahead of my time. I’m always ahead of my time. When I read that sparking water is the new soda, I thought: “Wow!”

American Jewish lore has it that seltzer was once a popular drink. I couldn’t tell you one way or another. That was before I was born, but my dad liked it and I think his brother did too. (Roger, if you are reading this, you can confirm or deny that.) The only evidence I have about the popularity of seltzer comes from movies made in that era, especially the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers. Problem is, they never drank the stuff. They squirted each other with it.

I didn’t like seltzer as a boy. I liked Kool Aid and Pepsi and Barq’s root beer. They didn’t even serve seltzer in southwestern Ohio, where I grew up. We only had seltzer when we drove to Chicago to visit my mom’s family. And where there was seltzer, there was chocolate phosphates—a concoction of seltzer and chocolate syrup.

(Now don’t take this as a recipe. Some years later, on my first paying job at Baskin-Robbins, I was taught to make a chocolate phosphate with chocolate syrup and a spoonful—and only a spoonful—of vanilla ice cream that was stirred around until in melted and mixed with the syrup. Then you added seltzer from the fountain. I’m told that a similar drink was popular in Brooklyn called an egg cream. Apparently, a chocolate egg cream used milk instead of vanilla ice cream with the chocolate sauce. It contained neither egg nor cream. My dad made a drink with a raw egg and chocolate ice cream, but it wasn’t called an egg cream. It was called a Gogol Mogol—which brings up thoughts of the armies of Gog and Magog at the battle of Armageddon—which is a lot of freight to bear for a mere milkshake. I experimented with the chocolate phosphate recipe and found that the vanilla ice cream really added little to the flavor. The key items were the seltzer and the chocolate sauce.)

I didn’t like chocolate phosphates as a child, but I love them now, just as I love seltzer—aka sparkling water.

I have no idea why this hasn’t been popular all along. Well, maybe it has been. We had the Perrier craze some years back. I started drinking it in my Baskin-Robbins days.

* * *

All this talk about seltzer has brought to mind a parody song from the sixties by Alan Sherman called “Seltzer Boy”:

Seltzer boy
Where are you hiding
If you don’t come right now
I’m gon’ tell you boss on you

Oy.

Don’t bring me water
I rather have seltzer
‘Cause water don’t bubble
And water don’t fizz

Water I hate it
‘Cause it ain’t carbonated
But a glass of seltzer
On the other hand is

Don’t bring me Pepsi
Don’t bring me a Kool-Aid
Don’t bring a malted
And don’t bring me champagne

I’ll tell you what boy
Bring me one scotch and soda
Then you’ll take back the scotch, boy
And leave the 2 cents plain

Seltzer boy
When are you coming?
If don’t bring that seltzer
I’m gon’ tell Mister Meltzer on you

Seltzer boy
[Seltzer squirting]
That’s better, could you put in a little chocolate sauce?

(The line “Bring me one scotch and soda/Then you’ll take back the scotch, boy/And leave the 2 cents plain” brings into mind the “hold the chicken” scene from Five Easy Pieces. But I digress.)

I never thought much about the Seltzer Boy song, but it obviously stuck with me for half a century. It definitely has a mid-20th century vibe to it with its use of the word “boy.” I wondered if it might reflect the racism of the time. But when I looked it up . . . well, I’m not sure what I found.

The song is a parody of a song sung by folk singer and civil rights activist Odetta called “Water Boy.” You can definitely hear the similarity.

Water boy
Where are you hiding?
If you don’t come right here
Gonna tell your pa on you

There ain’t no hammer
On this mountain
That ring like mine, boy
That ring like mine

I’m gonna whoop this rock, boy
From here to the Macon
All the way to the jail, boy
All the way to the jail

You jack ‘o diamond
Jack ‘o diamond
Know you’re
I know you are of old

You don’t rob my pockets
Rob my pockets
Silver and gold, boy
Of silver and gold

Water boy
Where are you hiding?
If you don’t come right here
Gonna tell your pa on you

There ain’t no hammer
On this mountain
That ring like mine, boy
Ring like mine

Bust this rock, boy
From here to the Macon
All the way to the jail, boy
All the way to the jail

Water boy
Where are you hiding?
If you don’t come right here
Gonna tell your pa on you

Then, when I researched this more deeply, I find that the song “Water Boy” is somehow derived from a combination of a plantation call-and-response song built on the call “water boy, where are you hiding?” But it is also apparently partially derived from a Native American tune as well as a Jewish marriage song. I was unable to find the Jewish marriage song.

And so we’re back where we started. And seltzer is popular again.

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