It is no coincidence that virtually all of the major soft drink are products of the South. Coca-Cola was invented in Georgia, Pepsi came from North Carolina, and the Lone Star State gave us Dr. Pepper in exchange for the future rights to Tommy Lee Jones and a three presidents to be named later. We love our soda pop down here, almost as much as we love alcohol. And mixing the two, such as my cherished Jack and Coke (see sidebar), well, you’ve got a drink that is the embodiment of the qualities Southern gentlemen seek in both their drinks and their women: sweet and satisfying, but will knock you on your ass if you don’t treat them with the proper respect.
It is hard to imagine a drink that is more emblematic of the South that has had such an impact worldwide. Sweet tea, ubiquitous in the lower provinces, doesn’t necessarily travel well outside of them. Not so with soda. These bubbly nectars of Dixie have found their way into some of the unlikeliest places on Earth. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when the legendary tomb of Chinese Emperor Qin is excavated, they find a 2,200 year old Coke machine with a hand-lettered scroll attached that reads, in ancient Chinese characters, “Machine owes me two silver pieces.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a diehard fan of Coca-Cola (or, Co-Cola, as it is still known to the old timers). Coke is near and dear to my heart, from the time of my earliest memories when I remember my mother pouring a package of Tom’s peanuts into a little 6 oz. glass bottle of Coke. Her regular soda of choice was the saccharine-tastic Tab, though she graduated to Diet Coke when it came on the market. The restaurant we owned served Coke products, and we used to buy cases of glass bottles through the local bottler for our own enjoyment. After we sold the restaurant, my allowance came from the refund of the deposit for returning cartons of empty bottles to the supermarket. Our consumption of Coca-Cola kept me in Spider Man comic books, tickets to whatever was showing at the Stonewall Theater, and real estate investments throughout my childhood.
There are few things in this world that make me any happier than a nice cold Coke (or, as weight and overall health have become an issue, Coke Zero). Coca-Cola is represented in every room of my apartment, from the bottle cap shower curtain rings in my bathroom to the plastic replica Coke machine magnets on my refrigerator door. I have Coca-Cola checks and address labels. For the very first vacation I took as an adult, I chose Atlanta; in equal measure both to see my beloved Braves play, and to visit the World of Coke. For a Coke lover, the corporate museum and showplace is like making a pilgrimage to the holy land. I got more than my $8 admission fee’s worth in the tasting room alone. If Coca-Cola still contained cocaine, there would be enough in my system to put both Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan in the super-secret depths of the Betty Ford Clinic, where the horrifying undead corpse of Betty herself conducts a thorough “cleansing.”
For those who cheer at concerts whenever someone says the word “cocaine,” and love to point out that Ulysses S. Grant spent the last years of his life coked-up to relieve the agony of cancer, it must be pointed out that the actual amount of nose candy contained in Coca-Cola was infinitesimally small. There is probably more Columbian marching powder right now in the skeletal remains of John Belushi than there was in all the Coca-Cola produced from 1886 to 1929, when the last traces were quietly removed from Coke’s formula. So while it is true that Coca-Cola’s formula once did contain coca leaves (which, according to Better Homes and Gardens, is the main ingredient in cocaine), keep in mind that in the 19th century, cocaine was viewed as a potential wonder drug that could ameliorate everything from cancer to erectile dysfunction. This was, of course, doctors realized the terrible consequences of addiction, from having long, pointless conversations with total strangers in public restrooms to drastically overestimating one’s creative abilities and proclaiming themselves a “rock star from Mars.”
Cocaine would make a comeback in the 1970s, when it was promoted as an antidote for late 20th century ennui and conventional sexual morality. This time around, there was no need for Women’s Temperance Leagues or the Legion of Decency to warn America’s youth of the evils of blow; all it took was for my generation to take a hard look at the haggard Baby Boomers who had snorted their life’s savings and all they had to show for it was a perpetual case of the sniffles, witness the tragic waste of high profile cocaine victims from Len Bias to River Phoenix, and watch in stunned horror as Whoopi Goldberg was allowed to make movie after movie by a motion picture industry literally up to their noseholes in disco dust.
Moving right along.
Soft drinks were born in the last decades of the nineteenth century when the Temperance Movement began gaining traction and people were seeking alternatives to alcohol, at least when there were ladies present. First marketed as healthful elixirs, claiming to cure everything from dropsy to tired blood, soft drinks were concocted in the apothecaries of the day by reputable druggists. People were a lot more gullible in those days; not like now, when people know better than to fall for those “male enhancement” pills or spurious natural cures that the Drug Companies Don’t Want You to Know About. Once people figured out that these potions wouldn’t cure anything except moderate thirst, but they tasted good and had enough caffeine in them to put some pep in their step, the drinks were marketed more for the pleasurable aspects of their consumption rather than as an antidote to the scourge of 19th Century ailments such as tetter and a bilious countenance.
By the turn of the century, regional bottling concerns were producing a staggering variety of sodas. Colas, based on the caffeine-packed African kola nut, and citrus drinks were among the most popular. Little has changed in over 100 years as colas still tend to be the market leaders, followed distantly by citrus-flavored sodas. Recent studies on the scientific aspects of taste reveal that it is the complex, multi-faceted flavor of colas that help them to dominate over single-flavored drinks, such as orange soda. Colas remain interesting to the palate over time, while single-flavored sodas quickly become boring. It’s like the difference between dating an intelligent and interesting woman of average appearance versus a highly attractive woman who still can’t figure out how Hot Pockets work.
Very few of the small regional brands remain extant, much less competitive in the multi-billion dollar soft drink market. Two notable exceptions are North Carolina’s Cheerwine, a Tarheel State fixture since 1917 that has always maintained a devout consumer base, and Columbus, Georgia’s RC Cola, which maintains a cult following throughout the land of Moon Pies and magnolias. Those small brands that have survived are now benefiting from an environment where conformity is no longer expected as one’s individual duty towards the preservation of a homogeneous society. We’re no longer an either/or society (Coke or Pepsi, Ford or Chevy, Ben or Jerry).
I suppose some mention should be made of Pepsi, Coke’s most significant longtime rival. Pepsi was first concocted in 1893 by Caleb Bradham in New Bern, NC. Originally called Brad’s Drink, it changed its name to Pepsi Cola to reflect the digestive enzyme pepsin and kola nuts used in the recipe. The goal was to create a drink that aided in digestion and boosted energy.
Pepsi was notable for being one of the first national brands to market to black people without pandering or playing on stereotypes, and against while racism. Edward F. Boyd, who was hired by Pepsi the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers introduced Jackie Robinson, spearheaded this effort – portraying his fellow African- Americans as fun-loving and economically stable and independent. At one time, they had a dedicated black marketing department to reach out to that vast, but virtually ignored demographic. Even a fiercely loyal Coke fan such as myself must tip my cap to them for portraying blacks positively and with respect in their marketing material, taking a bold step at a time when most black people in advertising were portrayed as servants or comical brown caricatures at best, and coal-black pickaninnies at worse.
It was around this time that Pepsi tried to position themselves as the “choice of a new generation,” attempting to appeal to Baby Boomers now reaching adulthood and trying to reinvent themselves as a hip, with-it group, throwing off the staid fashions and mores of their parents. The result was the 1970s, one of the most embarrassing decades in human history, which established new lows in virtually every area of society and culture. As Pepsi co-opted the feckless, clueless archetypes of the Me Generation, they unwittingly turned their representative Pepsi Generation into a living endorsement for Coca-Cola’s comparatively quaint middle America approach. Coke was perfect for a hot dog at the ballgame, Pepsi was for pedantic fondue party discussions of how Nixon was probably the Antichrist.
The battle between Coke and Pepsi reached its apex in the 1980s, when Pepsi began aggressive campaigns such as the Pepsi Challenge (in which people participated in blind tastings and allegedly chose Pepsi two-to-one over Coke) and spent huge sums on popular entertainers like Michael Jackson and Madonna. The Cola Wars came to a head in 1985, when Coke changed their formula and released the now-infamous New Coke. It had supposedly outperformed the existing formula in blind tastings (lies!), and lacked that little bite that Coke always had. Consumers predictably went ballistic. Coke acknowledged their error and released Coke Classic, supposedly the original formula, six months later. Eventually, New Coke became Coke II, then disappeared into ignominy along with the Michael Jackson’s original head and Madonna’s film career. Conspiracy theorists claim that the entire event was manufactured as a way to stealthily switch out the original formula’s natural cane sugar for less expensive high fructose corn syrup. This is nonsense, as Coke made with sugar is still available from Mexico and the difference in sweetener is practically indiscernible. I personally notice that the Mexican Coke contains more phosphoric acid, which gave the original Coke that familiar bite that I love. This is why I prefer Mexican Coke when I’m having a regular Coke; or, if Mexican Coke is not available, I can replicate the sensation by taking a sip of a regular American Coke and then licking a battery.
By the nineties, the Cola Wars were all but decided. Coca-Cola took a commanding market lead that it has never relinquished, currently standing at 42% to 30%. It is noticeable that Pepsi remains more popular in a few isolated pockets of the country. Buffalo, NY, for instance, prefers Pepsi two-to-one over Coke. But their taste buds have been scorched by all those hot wings and their minds numbed by the ridiculously frigid winters, so that hardly counts. A similar margin is held in central Appalachia, which I attribute to the progressive mental strains of social isolation and lingering lack of cultural refinement. I can still remember going to visit relatives in West Virginia and having to hunt through a convenience store for a Coke, which was usually stuck at the bottom of an unlabeled cooler between the bargain brand Faygo soda and Styrofoam containers of live nightcrawlers. And I can’t count how many times I’ve had this exchange in a Mountain State eatery:
“I’ll have a Coke.”
“We have Pepsi.”
“Dr. Pepper, then.”
On an unrelated note, it is a fact that my current hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, once led the nation in per capita consumption of Dr. Pepper. This could be because the man who invented Dr. Pepper’s unique formula hailed from Southwest Virginia, or it could be the fact that the landmark Dr. Pepper sign in downtown Roanoke was engineered to send out mind-altering waves compelling anyone within a 30 mile radius to “be a Pepper, too.”
In spite of all the attempts to vilify soda as the main culprit in the imaginary epidemic of obesity even though the consumption of sugary carbonated beverages has been gradually declining for years, soda pop still occupies a special place in the American heart. Their logos are as familiar as home, their advertising captures the halcyon spirit of whichever simpler age lives fondest in our hearts. To this day, the sight of a weathered Coca-Cola sign in front of an old dive wakes in me fond memories of my childhood when most of my favorite places were old dives with weathered Coca-Cola signs out front, because they always had the best cheeseburgers and fries, cool jukeboxes, and flirtatious waitresses (I discovered the charms of the fairer sex at an age when most of my peers were just figuring out how to tie their own shoes).
Soda remains a gift from the South, indelibly woven into the fabric of American society and a cultural ambassador to almost every nation on Earth. More so than any other Southern export, including virtually the entire purview of American music from blues to jazz to rock ‘n’ roll, soft drinks are a great unifier across all divides.
No matter who wins the Cola Wars (Coke, in a rout), the South is still the winner.
This article was not sponsored by Coca-Cola®, it merely reflects the author’s personal preferences.
Author’s Note: I’m sure someone will point out that Maine’s favorite soft drink, Moxie, was actually first to market in 1876. It was not included in this piece because A) It is not made in the South, and B) It is incredibly unpleasant.