One of my most powerful food memories, like Proust's madeleines, involves Coca-Cola. But not a bucket-size styrofoam cup of the teeth-achingly sweet stuff you get at a convenience store fountain nowadays.
In the summer of 1974, at the end of each sailing lesson on the St. John's River in Jacksonville, Florida, I would drag wobbly-kneed and sweaty up the hill from the dock, fish a quarter out of my jeans shorts and drop it into the marina’s red metal pop machine. That unlocked the long narrow glass door so you could pick from a vertical stack of bottles, their round green, orange and red lids facing out.
I always chose Coke over 7-Up and Fanta. The metal lid bit into my fingers as I pried a 10-ounce glass bottle loose from its metal collar — CLANG, BANG —and another one crashed down into its place.
I stuck the neck of the bottle into a recessed metal opener, snapped the lid off and listened to it fall — CHING — into a hidden receptacle.
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I pressed the cold fat rim of the bottle to my sunburned lips, and tilted my head way back so the icy stream could flow down the back of my throat as fast as possible.
The first sensation was not flavor but a delicious burn, almost medicinal. I would drain the bottle without pausing for air, then shove it into the diagonal wire rack on the side of the machine.
It was the pure refreshment: wet, fizzy and reviving.
Then a series of developments ruined pop for me: aluminum cans, plastic bottles, ever-sweeter formulas, artificial sweeteners, and most egregiously, replacing cane sugar with high fructose corn-syrup. The clean, thirst slaking-burn was replaced with candy-sweet syrupy heaviness. Or, in the case of diet drinks, with a lingering tinny flavor.
So I dumped soft drinks, but I never stopped pining for the Coke of my youth.
More recently, soft drinks have been demonized because huge serving sizes and indiscriminate consumption of mostly high-fructose-corn-syrup versions has been linked to the obesity epidemic in America.
But hold the phone.
Italians, Brazilians, Indonesians and people all over the world make and consume wonderful sparkling beverages made from fruit juices and real cane sugar without ruining their health.
Fortunately, those delightful, refreshing beverages in real glass bottles have been turning up more and more around town, usually in the refrigerated drinks case at ethnic markets, health food stores, specialty food stores and delis. Some are imported and some made in the U.S. They range in cost from $1 to $2 per bottle.
Here are some of my favorites:
Organicville Orangeville, a sparkling citrus beverage with pulpy organic orange juice, organic grapefruit juice. Sold at Whole Foods.
Mexican Coke, a real-sugar version bottled in Mexico. Sold at many Mexican markets and selected Price Choppers.
San Pellegrino Chinotto, an Italian sparkling soft drink with citrus flavors and an herbal note. Sold at Corollo's Gourmet Grocery.
Bruce Cost unfiltered ginger ale, a spicy, carbonated concoction made in Brooklyn from whole ginger. Sold at Whole Foods.
Virgil's micro-brewed root beer, a robust and creamy brew made by a family company in Los Angeles since 1916, using natural spices for flavor, including anise, licorice, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, wintergreen, sweet birch, molasses and nutmeg. Sold at Whole Foods.
Bergatto, a refreshing bitterweet drink that reminds me a little of Fresca without the aftertaste. It's made with Bergamot, the herb that gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive flavor. Sold at Pezzettino and Whole Foods.