Areas of Unrest
14 November 1999 - Soft Drinks
QOTD: "By trying we can learn to endure adversity. Other man's, I mean." - Mark Twain
Reading: Sue Grafton, O Is For Outlaw
Listening to: Gavin Bryars, The Sinking of the Titanic
Tuesday afternoon I was having lunch at Panasia Fusion in downtown Boulder and was drawn into the temptation of ginger lemonade along with my "Tokyo tofu." The latter proved to be a stir-fried mixture of tofu and veggies and noodles with teriyaki, served with a strange but tasty rice cake. The former, alas, proved to be more lemonade than ginger, but it got me obsessing about the problem with soft drinks in the U.S..
First, let's deal with the term "soft drinks". They're soft in the sense of not being hard, meaning not being alcoholic. But people don't usually use the term "soft drinks" to refer to juices or even semi-juices like lemonade. Instead, the term refers exclusively to carbonated drinks, but only to carbonated sweetened drinks and not to plain soda water. (I should note that lemonade in the U.S. is lemon juice, water and sugar, as opposed to British lemonade which is carbonated. The first time I ever ordered lemonade in England and got a can of Sprite I was completely confused.)
But the phrase "soft drinks" is not enough. I usually refer to them as "sodas". Being the good Northeastener that I am, I recoil visibly at the word "pop". Bostonians are alleged to use the term "tonics" but I've seen that rarely. The Pacific Northwest is the land of compromise and people say "soda pop". It gets more confusing when you go overseas and are confronted with "minerals" or with "cool drink," the latter being the dominant term in southern Africa. No wonder people resort to specificity and order by brand name.
None of which is the problem I really want to talk about, but while I am rambling about names, I should discuss the issue of carbonated water. That's my beverage of choice - to the extent that I consider the most important word of restaurant Italian I ever learned to be "gassata." (You can also say "con gas" if you're a fizzy fan like me; it's "sin gas" if you want still water. See, on-line journals are educational!) What is tricky is that you don't necessarily get the same thing by ordering "club soda," "seltzer" or "sparkling water". At least on United Airlines these turn out to be entirely different, the former two being bottled (canned, actually) by Canadian Dry, while "sparkling water" can be either a bottle or can of a brand one never heard of. I'm not really fussy about this on airplanes, though what I drink at home is Arrowhead Sparkling Mineral Water with Mandarin Orange Essence, which is sort of cheating because it isn't just water but has a miniscule (but tasty!) bit of citrus flavor. And, before someone writes to tell me, I do know that the difference between club soda and seltzer is that club soda has more sodium, but it's a minor point as a lot of the sparkling mineral waters have plenty of sodium too.
Anyway, my father used to have a seltzer spritzer, or maybe we got seltzer delivered in spritzer bottles. He used to buy syrups and we'd make our own sodas. This goes back to an earlier generation for whom the seltzer man came around and sold seltzer for two cents and syrup for an extra penny. Which led to the term (possibly unique to New York?) of "two cents plain" for seltzer. Incidentally, the best word in the world for seltzer is the Hebrew word "g'zoz" which just sounds so amazingly fizzy.
If I mention that the best stuff was my Dad's home-made raspberry soda, I'll start getting towards what this rambling treatise was really supposed to be about, but first I have to digress on the subject of spritzer bottles. A few years back, Sparkletts tried to market seltzer in plastic disposable spritzer bottles here in California. I believe I am the only person in the entire state who bought them. And the reason that I bought them, even though they tended to leak and fill your refrigerator with seltzer, is that only seltzer squirted from a spritzer can be used to make an egg cream. And an egg cream is a wonderful thing, containing neither eggs nor cream, but consisting of milk, chocolate syrup and seltzer.
You see, back in the late 19th century, a guy from Brooklyn went to Paris and tasted this wonderful fountain drink, called "chocolat et creme". If you say that with a Brooklyn accent, it comes out "chocolate egg cream". I'm not sure how they made them in Paris because there are two things that are essential to egg creams that can't be done in Paris. Namely, the milk has to come from New Jersey. I don't know why that is, but New Jersey milk is just different and it's the right thing. And, secondly, the syrup isn't real chocolate syrup, but is Fox's U-Bet Syrup. You mix a little syrup with a little milk in a tall glass, spritz in seltzer and there is the essence of New York before you. I drink egg creams (okay, so I cheat and use California milk but we live in corrupt times) and I'm transported back to days visiting my grandparents in the Bronx, sitting on a red leatherette stool at Rosie and Jose's candy store, which was right next to Grandpa's jewelry store on West Burnside Avenue. I think I later heard that Jose had been Grandpa's best friend back in Havana and he spent a lot of time worrying about family he still had back there, but I was too young to understand about the politics and all I knew is that he and Rosie fussed over us and let us eat candy until we spoiled our appetite for the soup that Grandma heated up on the burner in the back of the store. And then Grandpa would shut the store for the afternoon and Grandma would go home and cook up a huge dinner and we'd walk up the block with Grandpa and buy plastic fruit at the Five and Dime and if we were really really lucky he would take us to the Bronx Zoo to see the polar bears. It's a pretty good drink that can bring all that with it.
Yoo-hoo is supposed to be conceptually the same as an egg cream but it just doesn't have that mystical something, maybe because they use actual chocolate, a substance that comes nowhere near Fox's U-Bet Syrup, and maybe because factories don't spritz in seltzer individually. I liked Yoo-hoo when I was a kid and sometimes bought it on forays to Rhodes' Delicatessen, which was more of a general store than anything else. (It's still there and probably still has the general store aspects but I haven't been in for years and years.) On Sunday mornings, we'd ride our bikes down Long Beach Road, halfway to town, to Rhodes' and pick up the newspaper and a box of "mixed fancies" (good Italian pastries, especially the cannoli) for Mom and Dad and we'd get to spend the change on whatever we wanted. There was Yoo-hoo to drink or grape soda and there were books (mostly Harlequin romances and cheap gothic novels) and there were comic books. When the choice is between Yoo-hoo and Wonder Woman ... let's just say that I wanted to be an Amazon far more than I could ever crave any beverage.
None of this was actually what I was intending to write about, though, which is how thoroughly wimpy American tastes in soft drinks are. I go to the store and there before me are products from two major companies - Coke and Pepsi. Each one makes more or less the same things, oversweetened (whether with sugar or artificial sweeteners), often caffeinated, in a limited range of flavors that are dominated by sweet and artificial. Then there are cheaper store brand versions, often even sweeter and faker. If I'm in a really good store, they have a few brands of more drinkable stuff. Hansen's Natural Mandarin Lime soda is not bad at all, less sweet than Minute Maid / Sunkist / Fanta and the like. (Fanta is, oddly, getting harder to find in the U.S., but is widely sold in the Third World. I am sure this must mean something, but I have no idea what.) IBC Cream Soda is nice but the bottles don't have paper labels with UPCs printed on them so you can't put them in the recycling machines and you have to bring them back during the hours that the stores have their recycling centers open, making it essentially impossible for anybody who has an actual job. Gelson's (but no other supermarket chain in my area) sells Orangina. There are assorted Mom and Pop stores in the Pico-Robertson area (a very heavily Jewish neighborhood) that sell Dr. Brown's sodas. (The cream soda is okay, but what they are known for is Cel-ray. Nobody younger than my mother drinks this stuff, which is flavored with celery seed of all unlikely things. Even Robert, who prides himself on being the youngest living person who ever saw a baseball game at the Polo Grounds, making him a sort of legend of New Yorkerness, won't drink Cel-ray.)
But I can't find any stores which sell either of my two favorite soft drinks. (Remember that I disqualified juices from the category, so I won't rant here about the failure of the American beverage industry to import the absolute best not quite soft drink in the world, namely Just Juice. Just Juice is a brand of carbonated juice drinks with wonderful flavors like Ruby Red Grapefruit, Pineapple-Orange and Mango-Orange. I first encountered this stuff, in Mango flavor only, in Tanzania, but I didn't get really hooked on it until Namibia and South Africa. I have been told it is available in Australia but I don't remember seeing it there. I can buy South African fruit juice - Ceres brand - in my local Ralph's so my inability to find a source of Just Juice is inexplicable.)
The most annoying part is that I used to be able to find one of these drinks fairly easily. I refer to Schweppes Bitter Lemon. Yes, I know it has more sugar in it than just about any other soda - but the bitterness of the quinine and the tang of the lemon offset that and make this sublimely refreshing, especially in hot weather. All summer I searched and, alas, bitter lemon has vanished from West Los Angeles. Ralph's, Von's, Pavilion's, Lucky, Gelson's - all devoid of bitter lemon. Not even the mixer shelves of what I refer to as "the good liquor store" (a warehouse in the Marina that sells things like Canton Ginger Liqueur and Estonian beer) had it. And, the final blow, not a single bottle of that strange chartreuse beverage was on the shelves of Morrie's Finer Foods, a tiny store that used to be my bitter lemon source of last resort.
Nor is it a matter of names, for I have traveled far and wide and, while it is bitter lemon in England and Australia and India and Botswana, I have learned the secret of obtaining this ambrosia in Zimbabwe (where it is referred to just as "Schweppes lemon" and asking for "bitter lemon" may bring puzzlement and an accompanying dash of Angostura bitters). I have purchased many a can of "dry lemon" in South Africa. Not only are the shelves of Los Angeles bare of bitter lemon, they are bare of these beverages as well.
Which would be less painful could one merely obtain my second favorite soft drink here. I refer to ginger ale. Oh, sure, United Airlines will be happy to open a can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale for you. And Ralph's will sell you a choice of Canada Dry or Schweppes, both optimistically bearing labels with the words "ginger ale."
But, like that glass of ginger lemonade that started me ranting about this, neither of those have very much ginger flavor. The Breadfruit Tree, a Trinibangian restaurant in San Pedro that made their own ginger ale, is long gone. There is sporadic promise in a bottle from a health food store, but only partial satisfaction and, at two bucks for 12 ounces, one wants more than partial satisfaction. What one really wants is something is, oddly enough, a product of that same Coca Cola Corporation that fills the shelves of my local Ralph's with insipid, oversweet sodas. Namely, a simple can of Stoney. Sometimes sold as "Stoney Tanganika" (though I first tasted this wonderous essence of ginger on Zanzibar, where one might wonder about the politics of such a name), this is ginger ale with a bite. If ginger is really a cure for motion sickness, they should serve Stoney on the Vomit Comet. If ginger is really good for the heart, they should infuse Stoney through IV's in every cardiac care unit on the planet.
Okay, maybe they shouldn't, but they should at least sell it in the United States.
Copyright 1999 Miriam H. Nadel
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