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soda and fizzy drinks

30 march 2022

Judith Levin begins her global history of Soda and Fizzy Drinks with her archetypal childhood soda: Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray. Mine, a time zone to the west, was Frostie Root Beer. "Different parts of the brain," says Levin, "light up when people are consuming something with which they have emotional connections" (13). I don't know if Cel-Ray has been consistent enough over the decades to elicit that lighting-up. Frostie hasn't. Today's national-brand Frostie seems to me a faint mockery of the gorgeous stuff I loved as a child. Maybe that is the way of all childhood treats.

Soda (pop, coke, minerals, lemonade, whatever your place on the linguistic map calls it) is intriguing because it is made two very different ways (with that result that a single product can taste quite different in each form). One, pre-eminent in North America, mixes carbonated water from a "fountain" with flavored syrups. The other mixes the carbonated water with sweetener and flavoring, and bottles the result. Bottled soda can still seem like a poor substitute to Americans even though we drink tons of it. But it is arguably the older form of the drink. Though carbonated water straight from the spring, as in Vichy or the eponymous Niederselters, is older still, though now mostly with its natural carbonation reinforced by chemistry.

Practically-oriented British scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries seem to have invented nearly everything worthwhile, and artificial carbonation is no exception. In 1772, Joseph Priestley took time out from discovering oxygen to figure out how to cram carbon dioxide into water, and fizzy-drink manufacture was born.

The history of soda pop, ever since, exhibits an oscillation between the local and the global. Early fizzy drinks made use of favorite flavors from a given area: herbs, fruits, roots. Root beer itself, an archetypal soda, really does lie on the margins between beer and soda, because earlier "small beers" flavored with sassafras and herbs were a favorite drink of children and basically anybody who didn't want to get too loaded to do a day's work. After a couple of centuries as a soft drink, root beer has now come full circle with the marketing of "hard root beer," which sounds like an oxymoron and tastes like … well, I don't want to find out.

Local bottlers in Britain and Europe, local soda fountains in the U.S. and Canada, made hometown drinks; North American soda parlors added a social element that cemented many a friendship and provided a venue for wholesome courtship, particularly in temperance areas and Prohibition times. But as the 19th century wore on, the logic of mass capitalism led to standardized products, marketed over vast territories. The binary nature of soda pop meant that companies could ship syrups all over continents and in fact around colonial empires. Before long you could drink Coca-Cola in Mexico and Vimto in Egypt and Dr. Pepper in upstate New York.

Levin charts the love-hate relationship that many a culture has had with the giant standardized, imported soda brands. Coca-Cola is the behemoth and stands metonymically for all the others. A Coke could be the emblem of an aspiration to American style and American plenty, but also be resented as an imperial imperative that put people in thrall to Atlanta and erased their local soft-drink cultures.

The result was a proliferation of local styles, the Inca Kolas and Mecca-Colas that wrest fizzy drinks away from Anglo domination. This elaboration reached its finest development in Japan. "Japanization" (119-21) of the soda industry means the disintegration of soft-drink monoculture into a thousand ephemeral alternatives. Oddly enough, the dizzying range of Japanese sodas recalls the heyday of the soda fountain. And in the U.S. as well, things have come full circle. For decades, Americans' soda options were plastic bottles or highly standardized "fountain drinks" emitted from fast-food-outlet machines. Recently, though, "Freestyle" machines (125) have begun to appear in movie theaters and casual-dining places: automated soda fountains the size of an old phone booth, without soda jerks but with their capacity to create customized drinks in permutations that range into the hundreds.

Plastic bottles won out toward the end of the 20th century because of cost and ease of transport, but also because of safety concerns. Levin notes the disturbing tendency of pop bottles to blow up (68-69). When I was a kid – granted this was 55 years ago – my cousin was carrying a case of pop upstairs and we heard a sudden bang. One of the bottles had exploded and embedded shrapnel in his shin. It seemed a gruesome price for the convenience of drinking that pop in your own apartment.

I imagine it was Diet Rite Cola. My mother did not take sides in the Coke-Pepsi wars; she favored the weak third-party entry, Royal Crown's diet version. "Today it is owned by Keurig Dr Pepper," Wikipedia says of the Diet Rite brand; eventually everything will be owned by Bertelsmann AB InBev Unilever Mercedes-Benz.

I drank pop constantly between the ages of two and seven, and then soda constantly (because we moved to the East Coast) till I was sixteen, when I moved to Michigan and started drinking pop again, and then back to New Jersey and soda. My life has been a long weaning off soda pop, but I can now pronounce the process fairly complete. Unless you count the flavored seltzers I drink constantly now, and I suppose you have to; though they are unsweetened they are soda pop in every other respect. Though more and more, seltzers are now either caffeinated or alcoholic, which means you have to be very alert in the soda aisle or you will be in for a jolt when you get the stuff home.

I did have some 7-Up a few weeks ago when I felt nauseous; something about the formula for 7-Up makes it ideal for settling the stomach. (Levin points out that soda has a long relationship to health tonic, balanced by long crusades against the unhealthiness of sugary soda.) And I do like a bottle of soda on a long driving trip. Though it has to be diet and caffeine-free, and there are almost no options in that subcategory anymore. Diet Sprite is the only one you can reliably find in gas stations. Occasionally I will find a diet caffeine-free root beer. It's hardly Frostie but it's a comforting beverage.

Levin includes recipes, many for making your own sodas. The food recipes are for brisket in Coca-Cola, and for Irn-Bru cupcakes. I will pass on those, too; I don't cook beef anymore and I have never even seen Irn-Bru. Sláinte, all the same.

Levin, Judith. Soda and Fizzy Drinks: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2021.