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The South’s Love Affair with Soft Drinks

As published in Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing 4, Dale Volberg Reed and John Shelton Reed, editors (Athens: U Georgia Press, 2008), 147 – 152.

By Tom Hanchett (final, 1.14.07)

“What kind of coke you gonna have? Orange? Grape? Dr. Pepper?”

For a kid growing up in Troutville, Virginia, in the early 1960s, pure pleasure came out of the drink box in front of the Texaco station. On a hot summer evening, you’d plunk a pair of nickels into the slot, then plunge a hand down into that icy water to slide out a cold glass bottle.

Even though it was a blue box with the name of the Pepsi Cola company (“Hits the Spot!”) clearly emblazoned on the side, we called everything in it a coke. When I was 10 we moved up to New York state, and in latter years whenever I thought back I figured that “coke” was just a childish imprecision. Turns out that pretty much the whole South talked the same way when it came to soft drinks.

Researchers Matthew Campbell and Greg Plumb at East Central University in Oklahoma have gone to the trouble to map regional names for soft drinks.  In the Northeast, from New England down to the Mason-Dixon line, people say “soda.” In the Midwest and Great Plains, the preferred name switches to “pop.” Out in California it reverts to “soda” – maybe a legacy of an influx of sun-seeking newcomers from cold New England in the early 20th century. But look down to the lower right-hand quadrant of the U.S. map, and Campbell & Plumb show us the “coke” zone. From Texas to north Florida, upwards into western Virginia and Kentucky, most folks said “coke” for all soft drinks, just like our family and our neighbors did in Troutville.

Having its own peculiar name for soft drinks is just one manifestation of the South’s deep love affair with carbonated beverages. Most of today’s leading brands sprang from Southern roots, including Coca Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper. Regional flavors continue to inspire fierce local loyalty, among them Cheerwine and Sundrop, Buffalo Rock and Blenhiems, Ale-8-1 and Dr. Enuf. Southerners consume almost 60 gallons of soft drink per capita a year, much more than when I was a boy – though as “snowbirds” flood into the Sunbelt, the region seems to be becoming less distinctive. The love affair shows no signs of ebbing, however, as immigrants from around the world add a bevy of new sugary beverages to the Southern drink box.

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Any survey of Southern soft drinks has to start with Coca Cola, the world’s dominant brand. Concocted in 1886 by Dr. John Pemberton in his Atlanta drugstore, the pick-me-up tonic took its name from extract of coca leaves and caffeine-rich kola nuts. The real genius in the story, though, was the marketing man Asa Candler. Building America’s first nationwide network of franchised bottlers, he made Coke a household name first in the South (hence the linguistic regionalism of my youth) and then throughout North America. In the 1920s his successor Hiram Woodruff took Coca Cola to the global market. Today that history is enshrined in the World of Coke, a museum and tourist attraction close to company headquarters in downtown Atlanta.

Smart as they were, Pemberton and Candler were just a small part of a wave of beverage entrepreneurs who tasted success in the 1890s and 1900s. The reason lay in two modest inventions. In 1892 a Maryland tinkerer named William Painter patented the cheap and reliable crimped metal “crown” bottlecap. And by the decade’s end, machinery existed to mass-produce glass bottles. Both innovations were likely devised with beer-making in mind. But they opened the way for a new industry: carbonated non-alcoholic (“soft”) drinks.

In 1885, a year before Pemberton, a Virginia druggist who had moved to Waco, Texas, swirled together a cocktail of flavorings to create Dr. Pepper. The drink won strong regional loyalty but without Asa Candler’s marketing drive it remained a Southern brand well into the 1960s. I can recall cradling two precious six-packs of Dr. Pepper in the backseat of our Rambler American as we departed Troutville, Virginia, for the foreign lands of upstate New York.

In 1898 in New Bern, North Carolina, a pharmacist named Caleb Bradham mixed up a tonic of pepsin and kola nut extract which he initially called “Brad’s Drink.” He patented it in 1903 and began franchising bottling rights under the name “Pepsi Cola.” First to buy a franchise was Henry Fowler in 1905 in the fast-growing textile town of Charlotte, North Carolina. Fowler already bottled his own ginger ale and fruit drinks; Pepsi nicely rounded out the flavor menu.

Indeed by the middle of the decade of the 1900s nearly every American town had at least one soft drink entrepreneur. Columbus, Georgia, with fewer than 20,000 people, supported bustling bottler Claud A. Hatcher and his new drink Chero-Cola beginning in 1905. Hatcher added a line of fruit flavors in 1924, which he called Nehi, and in 1934 to avoid a lawsuit from Coca Cola reformulated his cola under the title Royal Crown. The company’s entrepreneurial drive was considerable; by 1940 Royal Crown and Nehi reached customers nationwide. Southerners, though, felt a special affinity and eventually their nickname “RC” became the brand’s official moniker.

While Nehi and RC live on as part of the Dr. Pepper/7-Up empire owned by Cadbury-Schweppes, literally hundreds of other small-town brands are remembered only by bottle collectors (an impressive social network with its own accomplished historians). My own small Southern collection includes Tom’s, distributed by the route salesmen who brought Tom’s snackfoods to groceries and gas stations in South Carolina; its self-effacing slogan “It’s better” modestly avoided any claim to be “The best.” I also have a bottle of Dixie Grape from Charlotte, NC, touted as “The Hospitality Drink” by the demure hoop-skirted Southern Belle on the bottle. There’s nothing self-effacing nor demure about my most recent purchase from a junk store in Staunton, Virginia. The James E. Crass Bottling Company controlled the Coca Cola franchise for the Richmond area and offered a line of fruit flavors and ginger ale as well, under the fearless brand name Crass.

A handful of regional brands hang on in the South, braving the homogenizing tendencies of corporate America. Barq’s rootbeer is officially recognized by the Mississippi legislature as the state soft drink. It is now nationally available via Coke bottlers but still controlled by the Biloxi descendants of 1890s inventor Edward Barq. Dr. Enuf, launched by Tri-City Beverage of Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1949, harks back to soft drinks’ pharmacy roots. It boasts 240% of the minimum daily requirement of vitamin B1, 80% of daily B3, and 120% of potassium. Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale, with a spicy ginger kick, can be found around Birmingham, Alabama, produced by the local Pepsi bottler, which also offers a regional grape flavor called Grapico. For really spicy ginger ale, try Blenheim’s, now owned by the promoter of South Carolina’s famed tourist complex South of the Border on Interstate 95. Water still comes from the Artesian Mineral Springs in the nearby village of Blenheim, SC, as it has since the drink originated in the 1890s, and colored caps on the clear glass bottles still warn the degree of hotness: red = #5 Hot, gold = #3 Not As Hot. If spicy is not your thing, get some Ale-8-1 ginger ale, available since 1926 only in Kentucky and a few counties of contiguous states. Say the name out loud and you’ll get the pun – perhaps a reference to the fact that it is caffeine-free.

Several Southern regionals are anything but caffeine-free. Cheerwine hails from Salisbury, North Carolina, where the great-grandfather of its current CEO first made the drink in 1917. The cherry-flavored non-alcoholic beverage is now trying to leap from regional to national distribution. Double Cola comes out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where an enterprising bottler debuted a 12 ounce bottle in 1933, countering the six ounce industry standard. It once went head-to-head with Coke and Pepsi nationally, but pulled back to serve just the South.

Caffeine is a key ingredient in Sundrop, a Southern regional that inaugurated an entire soft drink sales category. St. Louis flavor chemist C. P. Lazier came up with the citrus flavor, tinged with orange and jacked up generously on caffeine. Double Cola Bottling Company of Gastonia, North Carolina, (now CHOICE Beverage) gave it a try in 1953 and it immediately caught on in the area’s cotton mill communities. Gastonia ranked as America’s top textile town throughout much of the twentieth century, the buckle on a textile and furniture manufacturing belt that extended through the piedmont Carolinas and into eastern Tennessee, western Virginia, and northern Georgia. The mills were notorious for long hours and hot humid working conditions, and millhands already slurped gallons of cola drinks in order to keep working through the day. In fact they had their own name for soda pop, more common that “coke” in some places: a “dope” was millhand slang for a soft drink, perhaps linked to Coca Cola’s early alleged use of a cocaine derivative, but more likely referring to the stimulant effect of caffeine. Many mills had a “dope wagon” that rolled through the work floor each shift selling snacks and soft drinks.

In that environment, Sundrop (“The Golden Cola — Refreshing as a cup of coffee”) became a swift seller and other southeastern bottlers rushed to get on board. Up in Chattanooga, for instance, Double-Cola added citrus Ski in 1956. In nearby Johnson City, local Tri-City Beverage reformulated a marginal brand called Mountain Dew (hillbilly slang for moonshine). It had debuted in 1948 as a lackluster lemon-lime drink. Reborn about 1960 as today’s familiar caffeinated citrus beverage, Mountain Dew positively flew off storekeepers’ shelves. In short order Cheerwine introduced Cool Moon, a Highlands, NC, maker offered White Light’nin, and Atlanta’s Monarch company rolled out Kickapoo Joy Juice featuring hillbilly characters from the comic strip Lil Abner.

Corporate giant Pepsi took notice of all the fuss stirred up by Sundrop and its followers. On September 2, 1964, Pepsi purchased the Mountain Dew formula and trademark, and within months introduced the flavor to consumers coast to coast. Today Mountain Dew ranks fourth, just behind Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Coke, on the list of America’s most popular soft drink brands nationwide.

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Space is short, so I’ll skip over other Southern soft drink lore. I’ll not give recipes for Coca Cola cake, a Dixie tradition at least since the sugar-rationing era of World War II, nor mention the immortal 1951 song “Give Me a Moon Pie and an RC Cola” by hillbilly stars Lonzo and Oscar. I won’t tell you how Royal Crown kicked off the national low calorie craze in 1958 with its Diet Rite brand. And we won’t get into controversies over the substitution of high fructose corn syrup for sugar in soda pop since the 1970s, except to note that the top health expert warning of the dangers of HFCS and obesity is a North Carolinian, Dr. Barry Popkin, and that a high-profile hold-out against the trend is a bottler in Dublin, Texas, who still resolutely offers only sugar-formula Dr. Pepper.

Instead, let’s talk about the impact of newcomers on the Southern drink scene. Americans today are moving more and more freely between regions. Northerners have streamed into the southeast in large numbers for the first time. The South is no longer nearly so poor and isolated as when I was a boy. What is the impact of all that on Southern distinctiveness?

Statistics from the trade journal Beverage World indicate that back in the 1970s, the South unquestionably was distinct in soft drink consumption. Southerners led the nation in thirst for carbonated beverages. The first published gallons-per-capita data, for 1977, showed the South (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia) drinking 38.3 gallons annually – far ahead of any other region. Climate did not seem to be the deciding variable, interestingly. The desert-hot states of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah each drank less than the national average of 32.9 gallons, almost identical to amounts in cold Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. For whatever reason, the southeastern U.S. was the epicenter of soft drink culture.

Today the South is still a strong consumer but regional differences are blurring. All Americans are buying more soda pop, 51.5 gallons each in 2005, compared with 32.9 in 1977. In that time the South’s figures have grown impressively, but its rate of growth has dipped below that of several other regions. Today, surprisingly, the “West Central” states (just west of the Mississippi River from Missouri up to the Dakotas) actually consume more pop per person than the South. Folks down in Dixie remain pretty thirsty though, now ranking second in the nation in gallons gulped.

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There is evidence that some of the South’s newest arrivals are renewing the region’s liquid love affair. During the 1990s and 2000s, the once isolated southeast began attracting foreign immigrants in large numbers. A 2004 Brookings Institution study identified Atlanta, Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte as the nation’s four fastest growing Hispanic cities – and Latin Americans are only the most visible members of a wave arriving from around the globe. As a result, international soft drinks are becoming a familiar part of the Southern scene, if you know where to look.

Many immigrants come from Mexico, the only place on the face of the earth where per-capita consumption of soft drinks has traditionally exceeded that of the American South. Check out the corner tiendas (grocery stores) popping up by the hundreds not only in Southern cities but also in the smallest country towns. You’re sure to see Jarritos fruit drinks, Mexico’s biggest brand, in half a dozen flavors from toronja (grapefruit) to tamarindo (tamarind). The well-stocked tienda may also have rival Barrilitos, or the apple soda Sidral Mundet, or an orange drink called Boing! or the wonderful non-alcoholic sangria by Senorial — my personal favorite. There’ll probably also be heavy glass bottles of Coca Cola and Pepsi imported from Mexico. Why bring in foreign Coke and Pepsi? Well, it is said that bottlers south of the border still use sugar, rather than high fructose corn syrup, and to Latino customers those Mexican sodas taste like home.

It is not just Mexican immigrants who are remaking the South. My daughter and I enjoy exploring the beverage coolers of multi-national Central Avenue just around the corner from our home in Charlotte, North Carolina. We sample glass bottles of Country Club sodas at the Dominican restaurant, LaCascada pineapple pop at the Salvadorean deli, and beer-like Malta India and Thums-Up cola at the Indian grocery. We join Middle Eastern and North African customers crowding the store that sells Fayrouz lemonade from Egypt and the English soft drink Vimto, a favorite in former outposts of British colonial rule. At the Bosnian grocery we taste Cockta sodas in cola or orange. The oddest drinks show up at the two Asian groceries. There are unfamiliar flavors such as coconut and pink guava, and other beverages with jelly globules in them. Our current passion is a Vietnamese pop made from dragonfruit, a beautiful red and green fruit with tiny black seeds – which float suspended in the soft drink.

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Today young people in my part of the South, and probably elsewhere, no longer refer to all carbonated beverages as “coke.” That’s yet another indication of the transformations this region is going through. The South my daughter is experiencing is very different from the one I knew in Troutville, Virginia. We’ve gained so much in economic growth and cultural connectivity. But are we losing the regionalisms that made the South a beloved place? Will this newest New South create a distinctive blend of old and new traditions that my daughter’s children will consider “Southern”?

Let’s reach into the soft drink cooler, pour us something cold, and ponder that question.