It used to be as popular as chocolate malteds.
Celery soda might sound like an oddity, but it once sat alongside cherry phosphates and chocolate malteds as a fairly standard drug store soda fountain option. It was promoted by athletes and bicyclists for its clean flavor and invigorating properties. It’s hardly heard of today, but for one hanger-on: Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray. Made since 1869, Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, affectionately known as “Jewish champagne,” tastes like mildly sweet ginger ale with subtle celery seed/lovage undercurrents, and an almost creamy, smooth finish. Celery soda has a slightly coumarin-woodruff sweetness. It’s delicious with a pastrami sandwich, and it’s also positively haunting with grilled pork loin and warm peach compote.
Just as celery itself is a polarizing food, not everyone agrees on celery soda’s place in the American culinary landscape. “Cel-Ray is a nasty, bilious tonic forced upon this generation by the Jewish martyr complexes of the prior one,” said James Beard Award-winning food writer Josh Ozersky, mincing no words in a 2009 interview with Serious Eats. However, there’s a more important reason we rarely see celery soda today. It’s because, in the words of the great Rick James, cocaine’s a helluva drug.
Native to the Mediterranean, celery has a long history of culinary and medical use. It was used in ancient Greece to make an aphrodisiac wine, it was in the pharmacopoeia of the ancient Egyptians, and it’s still used in traditional Chinese medicine to lower blood pressure. During the late 1800s, celery gained traction in England and the United States as a wellness trend. New brides were given celery vases as wedding gifts so they could proudly display the vegetable as a dinner table centerpiece. It was served in dinner parties of the social elite, in high-end restaurants, even in the first-class cabin of the Titanic.
This was also the era of the birth of American advertising, and one of the first items it was used to promote was patent medicines—tonics and elixirs made by doctors since the late 1600s to cure any and all ailments. In a 1793 advertisement in The Times, Dr. Ebinezer Sibly claimed his ”Re-Animating Solar Tincture” could even perform “restoration of life in cases of sudden death.” Unscrupulous salesmen and rampant charlatanism were sweeping the nation, but patent medicines nonetheless had an air of medical reputability. And the best place to dispense these nostrums was at the friendly neighborhood drug store soda fountain.
Soda and medicine were inextricably linked from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century; this was the impetus for the drug soda fountain. Sweetened sodas were invented to help the medicine go down (as evidenced by brand names like Dr. Pepper), formulations for medicinal and tonic sodas were routinely advertised in pharmaceutical magazines, and drug stores were the only place to buy soda. Dr. Brown’s introduced their “Celery Tonic” in 1868, eventually changing the name to Cel-Ray in around the 1940s, in response to concern from the FDA.
In 1887, a businessman named James C. Mayfield of Birmingham, Alabama created his own version of the cure-all, which he dubbed Celery-Cola. Mayfield had gone into business with pharmacist John Pemberton, the creator of Coca Cola; Mayfield was a one-third owner of Pemberton Medicine Company, mistakenly believing he had bought the rights to Coca Cola. He also sold a product called “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca:” French wine mixed with cocaethylene (a mix of cocaine and alcohol)—basically a precursor to vodka and Red Bull—marketed as a patent medicine. After a series of legal battles, he eventually returned to focusing on Celery-Cola in 1899.
Pharmacists frequently used the age-old drug dealer tactic of promising the first hit for free, advertising free samples of their cocaine-laden sodas in local newspapers and trade magazines. Brands like Celery Kola, CEL-SO, and Celerina emerged, claiming efficacy against an array of debilitations, including nervous exhaustion, menstrual cramps, and spermatorrhoea (involuntary ejaculation, aka “male hysteria”—evidently an epidemic in the mid-late 1880s). Some were more broad, claiming the tonics treat “all languid conditions of the system,” which cocaine is rather famous for curing.
Celerina came with a number of expert testimonies in an 1883 issue of Journal of Materia Medica. “I have used Celerina in two cases of mental depression caused by sexual exhaustion,” wrote Dr. Charles Zoller of Litchfield, Illinois, “and have found the results very satisfactory.” It’s unclear whether those two cases were his patients or himself, but his emphasis is nonetheless…intriguing.
In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act set out to stop the widespread fraud, deceptive advertising, hopefully prevent accidental poisoning. By 1910, several brands of celery colas and tonics (including Mayfield’s) were found to contain illegal amounts of caffeine cocaine and sued by the Pure Food and Drug Administration. Cocaine itself was still technically legal, as long as manufacturers labeled their products as containing the narcotic and adhered to purity standards (like several others, Mayfield had failed to disclose these ingredients on his labels).
The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 merely regulated and taxed the drug. It wasn’t until 1922, with the Jones-Miller Act, that the government really cracked down on cocaine manufacturers. Meanwhile, following his brush with the feds and losing a lawsuit filed by Coca Cola, Mayfield relaunched his company under the new name Celery-Cola Corporation of America, reintroducing his Celery-Cola. Marketing his sodas as “Dope” (though less aptly than before the crackdown), he was successful throughout the 1920s, but his company didn’t survive the Depression. By then, tastes had changed anyway, and celery soda (mostly) made its exit from the American beverage stage with the death of the American celery trend. Not even Dr. Sibley’s Solar Tonic can revive it.