Epic Food Market Fail (With a Triumphant Recipe for Celery Soda)

I recently tried (and failed) to sell corned beef sandwiches at the New Taste Marketplace food hall. This is a cautionary tale/headnote – one of those “life lessons” to be looked back upon and learned from, laughed at over gin and tonics on the front porch several years from now. Several. The homemade celery soda made to go with it is absolutely delicious, and it will be highly nostalgic for anyone used to Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray. Like my story, it’s both salty and sweet.

I had every reason to think that selling sandwiches was going to be a success. First off, I love this monthly San Francisco event and I was thrilled to be a participant. New Taste Marketplace is an excellent breeding ground for small-time artisan food entrepreneurs such as Ooh La La Lumpia (stationed to my left) and Snapdragon Baking Co (to my right). The event is also a fundraiser for the food pantry of the church where it’s housed, and it brings in thousands of dollars for people who have no food at all.

I’ve never sold cooked food in my life, but I went into the idea with total confidence in my food and menu. My corned beef is delicious (make it and see – the recipe is in Can It). I’ve made it untold times and reheated whole hunks of it with steam, as the flavor of warm corned beef just kicks cold corned beef’s ass.  Ba-Tampte mustard is the de-facto mustard to be served with all Jewish deli meats, and I had plenty at hand. The homemade kraut was rocking and sandwich-ready. And Semifredi’s sliced rye bread is excellent for sandwiches. Homemade cumin-scented carrot pickles were poised to brighten things up along the side and, of course, glasses of homemade celery soda to make it real.

I cured 25 lbs. of Five Dot Ranch brisket for a week, lovingly simmered it for two hours, trimmed it of its fat cap and carefully, patiently, sliced it thinly by hand to have it ready to serve the next day. This process took the better part of a day.

Saturday morning, the day of the market, I packed the car of all my gear and gently heated the sliced meat in a safe and snug aluminum pan tightly covered with foil, along with a dish of water in the oven for added steam, just to heat it through. The heat was low, the oven was moist. I arrived at the event, painstakingly set up my table, added boiling water to my chafing dish to keep the meat hot. Upon pulling back the foil to steal a piece of delicious pink, cured meat – to my horror I saw that my excellent, rosy cured beef had turned the most heinous shade of gray. Like grandpa’s sock water gray. Grungy, hideous, rolled-over-by-tires-in-the-slush gray.  There was no way on earth I could sell this food, never mind give it away.

After all of my efforts, I refused to be downtrodden. I slapped a smile on my puss and let people passing by taste the carrots. For my friends who had arrived expecting to support and buy a sandwich, I gave them a glass of celery soda (and I sold and traded a couple, too).  For me, this isn’t just a refreshing and unusual soda. It’s also a drink of redemption; of making the most out of what you have – a Depression-era inspiration to celebrate what’s in front of you. I learned that food retail ain’t for me. I gave money to a great charity (my vendor fee), and I encouraged other food eaters to come out and do the same and help build burgeoning local businesses. While I still taste the salt in here and consider it a necessary flavor component, this celery soda is also deliciously sweet.


Salty Sweet Celery Soda

This recipe has a number of thumbprints on it, but of course I’m going to take all the credit :>. The idea of infusing simple syrup with celery seed is from Alton Brown. The homemade celery salt, which I highly recommend for this, comes from Heidi Swanson (and I’ve stolen her idea already and tried it with a number of herbs for the Williams-Sonoma blog). And toasting the celery seeds was a welcome suggestion from Jesse at SodaCraft. Enjoy.

1 teaspoon celery salt (preferably homemade, recipe follows)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons celery seed
Sparkling water

To make the celery salt:

Collect the leaves from celery tops and lay them in a single layer, not touching, on a Silpat- or parchment-lined baking sheet. Dry them in the oven at 200°F until they shrivel and get crunchy (however, note that sometimes they won’t feel crunchy until they cool for a minute). Small leaves will dry faster, of course, but the process should take 5 minutes or so.

Once dry, crumble the leaves and lift the edges of the Silpat or parchment to make a cone; pour into a spice bottle. Add an equal amount of Maldon or regular sea salt, cover and shake to combine. Label and store in your pantry for several months.

To make the soda:

Toast the celery seeds in a skillet on medium high heat until they lightly brown and become fragrant; about five minutes.  Once they’ve cooled slightly, grind in a spice mill or coffee grinder.

Meanwhile, place the sugar and the water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir frequently until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add the celery seed and salt; stir, cover, and steep for 1 hour. Strain though a fine mesh strainer into a glass bottle or jar and refrigerate until cool. This can be stored for several months.

To drink, combine 2-3 tablespoons of syrup to about one cup of sparkling water. Add ice, a straw, and a corned beef sandwich for garnish.

Makes just over a pint.

10 Comments on “Epic Food Market Fail (With a Triumphant Recipe for Celery Soda)”

  1. I don’t quite get it, why is food retail not for you? Just because it didn’t work out this one time?

    I don’t find the fail ‘epic’, do you have an idea why your meat turned gray? Was it a mistake that can be avoided? Was it just the colour, or was it also inedible?

    There is a lot to be learned from this, but IMHO not that food retail is not for you.

  2. Thanks for the recipe. I’ve tried mine with a natural ginger soda culture and the result is a lightly alcoholic (0,5%) with a light ginger tang and then the caramel/cocoa/herby taste from the celery seeds. Thanks! And I miss you on youtube. You were one of my favorites. Will try to get your book soon but living in Sweden ordering online can be a hassle.

  3. I am very curious as to why the Corned Beef turned grey. Any ideas? What did you do with 25 pounds of off-color cured brisket? Plus all of that wonderful rye bread and mustard….
    Thanks, BZ.

      1. OK, so does that mean that the solution is to NOT slice the meat until you are ready to serve it? That sounds logical, and would explain why the deli’s in NY do it that way….

        1. Actually, I think the flaw was in my reheating. Rather than steaming it, I had inadvertently boiled it (due to the large quantity, I didn’t have a way to steam it all at once). The boiling turned the whole lot of it gray…blech!

  4. So excited to find your celery syrup through Punk Domestics as I’ve been trying to make this with the vegetable not the seed– and it’s been just so flavourless. So thank you for working this out for me. Had actually considered using seed but toasting them is a brilliant upping of flavour and slight bitter too. A few years ago I made a syrup with lovage and rosemary and the soda tasted just like Fresca, which I think you with your Ba-Tampte Mustard could appreciate 🙂 Love your blog and your work.

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