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Seth Rogen’s ‘An American Pickle’ is the first movie that understands how I feel about seltzer

Seth Rogen’s new HBO Max movie, ‘An American Pickle,’ features a loving tribute to seltzer, a beverage we have all come to take for granted.

Seth Rogen’s ‘An American Pickle’ is the first movie that understands how I feel about seltzer
[Photo: Hopper Stone]

It shouldn’t count as a spoiler to say that a lot of unrealistic things happen in An American Pickle.

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Lest the documentary-esque title fool you, this is a movie where Seth Rogen falls into a vat of pickle brine in 1919, only to emerge—perfectly preserved—in present-day Brooklyn. For some viewers, however, the most absurd part of this formally absurdist movie may just be the modern marvel Rogen’s character finds himself most instantly enchanted with. Not the internet. Not Alexa. And certainly not the latest fashion, which in Brooklyn trends toward a hundred years ago anyway.

No, this unsuspended time traveler is simply overcome by seltzer.

I totally get it.

]An American Pickle, the first film to truly show seltzer the respect it deserves, opens in the fictional Eastern European shtetl of Schlupsk, where Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) and his future bride Sarah (Sarah Snook) dream of a better life outside of ditch-digging poverty. Herschel has a more specific dream beyond general upward mobility, though.

“Someday, before I die,” he confides to Sarah. “I would like to try . . . seltzer water.”

The scandalized gasp she lets out is how one might respond to her accountant announcing his wish to replace one of the Sharks on Shark Tank.

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“If people heard us talk like this, they would say we’re crazy,” Sarah says.

From these adverse conditions, the two soon flee Schlupsk for Brooklyn, where the seltzer dream remains unattainable. Well-dressed swells line up around a fine wooden seltzer cart, slurping to their heart’s content, while Herschel can only watch. After an unfortunate accident at the pickle factory where he works, however, and a hundred years of ripening, everything changes. The reanimated Herschel quickly meets up with his great-grandson Ben (also Rogen), who introduces him to the miracle of SodaStream.

Needless to say, Herschel is bowled over.

His eyes light up and dance at the whoosh of bubbles forming in the plastic container. He can’t believe his luck! After clinking glasses with Ben, he gulps his drink in total reverie. It’s as though he’s just sucked down a shot glass of good whiskey, such is the punch those bubbles pack against his untapped palate. Herschel sticks out his tongue, dizzy with the thrill of all-new sensation, his thirst for seltzer finally slaked.

“Crazy,” he notes.

And he’s right! Seltzer is crazy. It’s just become so common now, we’ve thoroughly devalued it.

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Although some may argue that the movie merely uses seltzer to make a joke about Herschel’s initial destitution, I submit that the filmmakers (screenwriter Simon Rich and director Brandon Trost) understand that seltzer’s inherent greatness is no joke.

Seltzer—or “jazz water,” as I call it—is the world’s most perfect beverage. It’s more exciting than water, which it is scientifically identical to in terms of hydration, and healthier than everything else that’s not water.

I never have to remind myself to drink eight cups of it a day; if anything I need to be told to stop drinking seltzer, to save some for the rest of humanity. Back when many of us used to work in offices, I was known as an enthusiastic and indefatigable drinker of  the complimentary seltzer cans in the Fast Company kitchen. Colleagues who sat near me had to practice the zen art of dissociation to inure themselves against the constant gun-cocking clack of yet another can cracked open.

Seltzer is so fizzy, refreshing, and fabulous that my answer to the question, “Still or sparkling?” might as well be: “Duh.”

[Photo: Hopper Stone]
Even if the rest of the world isn’t quite as enraptured by seltzer as me or Herschel, though, they still adore it. As of 2017, the peak of the recent La Croix explosion, Americans drink nearly 170 million gallons of seltzer per year, a figure that rose by 42% from five years earlier. (Rapper Big Dipper commemorated the moment with the seltzeriffic anthem “La Croix Boy.”)

All of this feverish demand is before you even take into account the recent phenomenon of hard seltzer, which sold more than 82 million nine-liter cases in 2019, and is bound to sell way more once the wave of White Claw ripoffs crashes onto the shore of thirsty picnickers.

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Of course, seltzer has a long history, which is every bit as rich as seltzer is plain—and some of it intersects with the film’s historical portrayal of the bubbly beverage.

According to Barry Joseph’s 2018 tome, Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink, sparkling water from natural springs was deemed to have medicinal value as far back as ancient Greece. The modern appreciation for seltzer, however, starts in the 1700s when Europeans began to build spas around areas with naturally carbonated water. (The term, “seltzer,” itself is derived from a brand of the drink native to the “Selter” springs of Niederselters, Germany.) Once chemists figured out how to artificially carbonate water, seltzer began its leap from spa staple to drugstore soda fountain filler in the following century.

Although the popular Polar seltzer was founded in America during the 1880s, it wasn’t until the massive influx of Eastern European immigrants (like Herschel) arrived around the turn of the century that seltzer became as hot a commodity here as it was around the world. An American Pickle is accurate in making seltzer a high-demand commodity in Jewish-heavy areas, which is how it acquired the nickname “Jewish champagne.” However, seltzer would not have been the prohibitive luxury item in 1919 that it’s depicted as in the film.

So, An American Pickle is not entirely serious in its portrayal of how much seltzer was valued by society. If you ask me, though, its portrayal of how much Herschel values the stuff is spot-on.

Hopefully, now that this movie is out in the world, it will give viewers who are used to seeing seltzer from the unimpressed eyes of great-grandson Ben the opportunity to see it through the eyes of Herschel—with wonder and whimsy.

Let the bubbles freak out your tongue. Embrace the stomach-settling quench of it all. Belch conspicuously, if and when you must. But never get so jaded as to forget that miracles do exist, and sometimes you’re fortunate enough to get to drink them.

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