Long before the Caamaño Bros. started making and marketing their sodas, Peter Levitt, owner of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, was looking for a non-imitation-flavor wild black cherry soda. “It goes really well with our Reuben,” he says, referring to that quintessential New York Jewish deli sandwich and the Caamaño Bros. soda he’s proud to have now to serve with it.
For Saul’s Reuben, Levitt’s kitchen makes its own sauerkraut. They hand slice the corned beef and pastrami (which come via Roberts Corned Meats, a century-old business in San Francisco), and they commissioned Berkeley’s famed Acme Bread Company to create a rye bread specially for them in the style of the loaves from the old Polish bread guilds. The pickle sitting next to the Reuben is cultured in-house at Saul’s, and they hand-make several flavors of soda as well—although not wild black cherry.
Levitt explains that the New York Jewish deli experience grew out of food customs brought to the New World by Jews from the Slavic region. “They didn’t have Coke,” he says. “They gathered leaves, seeds, bark, and herbs and made soda for the family.”
At any given time, Levitt’s deli offers at least three housemade seltzer sodas like those offered at any reputable Jewish deli soda fountain in the Big Apple. Mainstays are Old Fashioned Vanilla Cream, Fresh Roasted Ginger, and Toasted Celery, with other seasonally appropriate flavors rotated in throughout the year. The celery beverage approximates Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic, which is said to have originated in late 19th-century Brooklyn. FDA objections to medicinal tonics appeared shortly thereafter, so Dr. Brown’s started calling it a soda and branded it Cel-Ray.
4 ounces celery syrup (recipe below)
Add 4 ounces celery syrup to a pint glass. Fill with seltzer water and ice. Stir and then garnish with lemon slice. Serve with a straw.
To make celery syrup for approximately 12 sodas:
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 cups vodka
Simple syrup (1:1 sugar to water)
Place celery seed and vodka in a saucepan and warm over low heat. The idea is to ignite and burn off the alcohol, which will easily happen over a gas burner if you swirl the pan as it heats. Over electric heat, you may need to apply a flame. The flame will die out when the alcohol is gone, which usually takes about 3 to 6 minutes. Set aside until completely cool and then strain out the seeds with a fine strainer, pressing out any remaining moisture with a spoon. Mix this extract 1:3 with simple syrup.