I AM LOOKING AT A COPY OF A MAGazine. It has fallen open to the wine column, and I see a picture of three bottles. "Diverse whites complement a summer feast," the caption reads. The article proceeds in "winespeak" -- the wines' personalities, character, austerity, flowery aroma and, of course, more than you want to know about vintages. Just seeing the pictures and reading the terms make me thirsty. I'm dying for a diet root beer.
Yes, diet root beer (A&W) is my drink. I am also partial to the firm's diet cream soda, but I also drink Coke, Pepsi (diet, of course) and almost any other soft drink available. I have been a soft drink aficionado since my childhood when, in the abandonment of youth, I drank the non-diet kinds, including the awfully potent black cherry, a flavor with a "nose" all its own.
I am, in short, a connoisseur of sodas, and much of the time I prefer them to wine. There are times, of course, when only a drink will do, the stiffer the better, but if the truth be told, there has been many a dinner party where, had I the courage of my convictions, I would have asked for a diet root beer instead of the Chateau Something that was being served. I would have left the table feeling lighter, being lighter and not having to worry about killing squirrels on the way home in the dark.
I suspect that I am not alone. I suspect, in fact, that we are a nation of soda drinkers and that we could make of carbonated water what the French have made of wine. Consider just the terms. Some people call my drink "pop," some call it "soda pop," while still others refer to it as just plain "soda." The last is the preferred term for no reason other than the fact that I prefer it. "Pop" has a kind of Andy Hardy ring to it, which is to be avoided, and "soda pop" is unnecessarily long, a mouthful when a mere nibble will do.
To give soda the status and recognition it deserves, I am looking for someone to write the sort of columns about it that are routinely written about wine. I should like them to refer to bouquet, to nose and to vintage. I should like to hear something about regions and brands, about flavors and which diet drinks do not taste like something prescribed for strep throat.
I should like to know a bit more about decanting, specifically whether certain sodas taste best kept in the refrigerator or, as it were, iced upon opening. In my experience, root beer has the body, character and fullness to stand up to icing, but cream soda is an entirely different matter. Made from the tender vanilla bean, it should be treated with some delicacy.
And then there is the matter -- NO SMALL MATTER -- of what goes with what. Specifically, which soda goes with which foods. It is my strong feeling, for instance, that diet cream soda or, for that matter, 7-Up, cannot stand up to a good steak or really spicy foods. I think (and the experts agree) that only a cola or root beer has the body for those foods, although everything depends (as with wine) on how the meat is cooked and, of course, on the season of the year. All this is nothing more than common sense.
We turn now to regionalism. Certain experts have long recognized that a Coke bottled in, say, Atlanta is not the same as one bottled in, say, Prince George's County. It goes without saying that the water is different, and how people can think that this would affect a soft drink any less than the way different soil affects grapevines is something I cannot understand. It stands to reason that it does.
Secondly, it is both a known fact and a true fact that although regional bottlers all use the same formula for soft drinks, it is nevertheless also a known and true fact that no two formulas can ever be the same. This is because of widely known and universally recognized differences in atmospheric pressure, so that a soda bottled in P.G. County, which is at sea level, has got to be different from one bottled in Denver, which is a mile high. This variation, affecting chemicals of all sorts (not to mention metals and the psyche of human beings), may help to explain why no soft drink is ever the same everywhere.
When talking regional differences we of course also have to mention regional brands. These can be likened to the estates of France, each and every one known for its characteristic wine. Vernors ginger ale, for instance, is much prized by the people of Detroit, but it apparently does not travel well. It always arrived at my palate a bit too acidic for my liking, having a cloying taste that assaults the nose and can, as far as I'm concerned, be served only with a charlotte russe.
And what, you may ask, about decanting, specifically the vessel in which soda is kept? This too is a complex subject, what with cans and bottles being further broken down into plastic, glass and aluminum. When liquid touches a substance, it is affected by that substance (n'est-ce pas?), so only a clod could maintain that a Coke in a bottle is the same as a Coke in a can -- Classic or New, although the latter (except in Denver) is not a drink I can recommend.
Of course, there is much, much more to soft drinks. Their complexity, their composition, their ability to travel, their vintage -- all of that is but a mere beginning. It would take a lifetime of study to know everything there is to know on the subject and to raise this humble American beverage (Potus humilis ameri-canus) -- enjoyed by the Romans since, oh, the time of Marcello Mastroianni -- to the level of recognition it deserves. Unfortunately, I am now out of space. Bottoms up and pleasant drinking!
Next week we shall discuss the egg cream.