by Allison Robicelli
If there is one flavor I can say sums up my entire Italian-American upbringing in Dyker Heights, it’s seltzer. Not the fancy old-timey stuff that was delivered by an eight thousand year old man that’s becoming so in vogue right now, because I’m not that old. Just good old fashioned, no-frills 4 liters for a dollar seltzer.
My grandmother loved seltzer. Loved it to the point that it was the only thing we were given to drink during my entire childhood. Grandma wasn’t merely thrifty – she was downright cheap.
Brutally, uncompromisingly, miserably cheap. She learned from her parents, who came here from Sicily to escape massive poverty only to be thrust right into the Depression. My great grandfather was an artist, so my family wasn’t exactly rich (side note: if you ever see pictures of the original Luna Park in Coney Island, those are his murals on the walls).
Grandma was brought up with an innate sense of thrift and resourcefulness. And though my grandfather was, from what I heard, one of the hardest working men in the world, he wasn’t a Rockefeller. With four kids to feed on one middle class salary, Grandma’s genetically disposed cheapness became her greatest asset. If a bank gave out free toasters with new accounts, she’d go down there with $20, open a savings account for each one of her kids, and all her sisters would get toasters for Christmas. She scoured sales like a hawk, buying mass quantities of things at their lowest price and stashing them around the house. And of course, she would skimp on the finer things in life for herself – like sleeping on thirty-year-old sheets with a threadcount of 12 – just so she could lavish generosity on the people she loved the most.
I vividly remember one sleepover I had at her house when I was about 8 years old where she informed my sister and I we needed to wake up early the next morning, because seltzer was on sale at Waldbaum’s and we had to get there before it was all gone. Now as an adult in the 21st century, I know two things:
1. Seltzer is always cheap, and
2. No one is ever in any danger of seltzer being sold out.
But in Dyker Heights in the 1980’s:
1. Seltzer was always cheap, but sometimes it was REALLY cheap, and if you didn’t buy it when it was 4 cents a bottle you were a sucker who was just sitting back and letting the evil seltzer conglomerates basically steal your hard earned money, and
2. Little old Italian women would fucking cut you, THEN put a horrible curse on you and all your descendants at the Waldbaum’s bi-monthly seltzer blow-out if you gave them the slightest reason.
There are no words in the English language that can possibly describe what I witnessed that morning in Dyker Heights in the ’80s. So many housecoats, plastic hair bonnets and foam rollers in one place, pushing and shoving at the endcap by the frozen seafood section. It was in moments like those when my sister and I were most grateful we were not raised to speak our family’s Sicilian dialect, because even though we couldn’t understand a single word, we were both terrified by the things coming out of those women’s mouths. We made off with the store limit of four cases and headed back to 83rd Street with our spoils.
Grandma pulled her Monte Carlo into the back alleyway and up to the back of the house, where we hopped out to help put the cases into the garage. As she rolled the door open and the sunlight shone into the interior, I took my first look at the singular image that has come to define my grandmother and my memories of her:
THE WALL OF SELTZER
Cases of seltzer, stacked 10 high lining the walls, catching the morning sun and reflecting it like a thousand crystal chandeliers! Seltzer! Casting rainbows on stacks of old college textbooks from the early 70’s and various Christmas decorations that had lost either their heads or multiple limbs, yet had inexplicably not been thrown away! Seltzer! Each case with labels from different eras, acting as a time capsule of graphic design!
After taking it all in, I had to ask my grandmother WHY she needed so much seltzer. She responded not with an answer, but rather with a full lesson on why it is completely impossible to have too much seltzer.
FACT #1: Everyone Loves Seltzer
Say you have Coke in the house. What if someone doesn’t like Coke? What if they’re watching their weight? Or if you only have beer? Now the whole neighborhood thinks you’re a drunk. But seltzer? Who doesn’t love seltzer! It’s like drinking water, but with the classiness of bubbles!
Everyone’s happy! Offer seltzer, you can’t go wrong.
FACT #2: Seltzer Has No Sugar
Boys won’t like you if you get fat. Lesson learned.
FACT #3: Seltzer Offers More For Your Money
Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house did not seem like a tremendous occurrence in my childhood, but looking back at the event I am in total amazement not only at Grandma’s thrift, but at her hosting abilities. Every Sunday, she would have a minimum of 13 adults and 2 children for a sit-down dinner at a table that comfortably sat 8. She cooked the meal in a kitchen that literally had 4 square feet of counterspace, and fed all of us a minimum of three courses in which there was so much food, not only did you leave stuffed, you left with leftovers. Providing wine for such an epic meal that occurred on a weekly basis was made easier when one could add seltzer and serve wine spritzers instead.
The spritzer solution also had two other important benefits. One, it prevented anyone from getting too drunk and ruining dinner, which was nice because it forced us as a whole to be more creative in finding ways to ruin dinner. And two, seltzer helped mask the fact that a jug of Ernesto Gallo “rose” tastes eerily similar to fermented cat urine.
FACT #4: Seltzer Never Goes Bad
Oh yes. Yes it does, and horribly so. But just TRY telling that to my Grandmother. And with it being the only thing there ever was to drink in that house, you learned to accept the taste of almost completely flat seltzer with notes of melted plastic. Note: If you ever find yourself in a situation where an elderly Italian woman is making you drink gallons of Vintage-brand seltzer from 1987, a splash of orange juice will make it taste just divine.
I lost my grandmother last July. In the last years of her life she was rarely home – she had either been staying with my Aunt Joan at her house in Kansas, or she was in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. When I went to her house to help pack up 89 years of memories, I found the closet filled with hundreds of rolls of toilet paper, just as I remembered it; the cabinet filled with far too many boxes of tin foil was the same as it always had been; but there was no Wall of Seltzer. I knew that she had stopped cooking years prior, and that Sunday dinner was a relic of my childhood that had passed close to 20 years before, but that was the one realization that completely broke me.
My cousins are all far younger than me and never knew half of the “old guard” of our little dynasty in South Brooklyn – our Sundays spent around a table yelling at the top of our lungs, but yelling with love (only Italian people will understand that – maybe a few Latinos as well). And so I buried my grandmother, knowing that my sister and I are the last of the line to understand that there is something so, SO much bigger than mere words about an act as simple as cramming into a 15’x10’ room with every member of your family, and stuffing yourself to the gills while being subjected to such legendary discussions as “Aunt Connie’s Friend Getting Pregnant from a Toilet Seat in 1947: Possible, or Total Bullshit?”
We took a break from packing to have our last meal as a family in that house – chicken cutlets and eggplant parmigiana on the back porch on a sweltering August night. After the food was done, my Aunt Rosemarie pulls out the only thing she could find to drink in the house: one last bottle of seltzer. She opened it up, poured each of us a half a glass, and we each took a sip. Then in near perfect unison we screamed “Jesus Christ Ro! Where the fuck did you find that?!?!?!”, to which she replied “It was jammed in the kitchen window holding it open- it’s probably been sitting in the sun for about two years”.
And that, my friends, is the story of the worst thing I have ever tasted in my entire life.
Guest columnist Allison Robicelli is best known as the owner and chef (with husband Matt) of Bay Ridge-based Robicelli’s Cupcakes. Allison is also a born-n-bred Brooklynite, workaholic entrepreneur, mother of two, and a badass writer. Every other week, she shares stories about the joys and horrors of growing up in South Brooklyn, running a small business, raising kids…and whatever the hell else she wants to talk about.
For more of Alison’s musings, or to find out what cupcake flavors she and Matt are concocting each week AND where exactly you can get your hands on them, check out their blog at Robicellis.tumblr.com.