Larry Brown likes it poured over ice. Rick Bragg has been known to enjoy a frosty can with breakfast, even while reporting from the far reaches of the globe. William Faulkner preferred mixing his with a little—ok, a lot—of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
We are talking, of course, about Coca-Cola. Indeed, Southerners—both writerly types and otherwise—have enjoyed The Real Thing for ages. A Dixie favorite since its initial concoction by Confederate Civil War veteran and Atlanta native John S. Pemberton, “Coke” has added to southern life for over a century now.
Dr. Pemberton was a pharmacist, the famous legend goes, who came up with the original formula for Coca-Cola syrup while attempting to create one of the cure-all tonics so popular at the time. Rumored to be a morphine addict, the good doctor originally, and rather famously, included coca leaves in his elixir, though that ingredient was later removed. (Interestingly, many soft drinks were developed first as medicines—7up, for instance, originally contained lithium.)
In a steal of a transaction perhaps rivaled only by the sale of Manhattan for twenty-four dollars worth of trinkets, Dr. Pemberton sold Coke’s secret formula for $1,750.00. As time passed Coca-Cola became better known as a comestible, and its popularity spread like wildfire, first to the North, then out West, and finally overseas, where it remains the most popular American soda export.
In the South, however—a place once derisively described by H.L. Mencken as the “Coca-Cola Belt”—the drink still manages a sort of double life. A tasty refreshment, sure, but still retaining—at least in some folks’ minds—a curative quality that soothes away minor ills, makes cakes moister, and works wonders on peanuts and bug-dotted car bumpers (pour on a can and work with a stiff brush).
Take note, Coke, and any aspiring young professionals in the marketing department. To use a refrain sometimes heard in these parts, “We remember you when you was jus’ a baby.”
Wander down into the less-populated and transplanted sections of the South, and ask folks (nicely, after introducing yourself) what they take for a minor sickness. Trailing perhaps only headache powders, Coca-Cola on ice, sometimes paired with saltine crackers, will be your recommendation. Other colas, while popular, don’t seem to have the same curative effect.
Indeed, even the word “cola” seems flat without a big cursive “Coca-” in front of it. The can, with its bold red and white design, seems to announce itself as a healer as surely as the same colors do for an ambulance. Suffering from a case of the trots? Take a two-liter Coke, let it go flat, and then drink a glass every hour or so (the above cure is also said to work for nausea, but I’d try it over ice first, just out of gastronomic principle). Some folks even swear by a glass of hot Coca-Cola as a sure-fire way to relieve congestion.
Other uses include relieving jellyfish stings (just pour it over the offending area) and bee stings (mix it in a poultice with a bit of tobacco). A few brave souls have even attested to Coke’s ability as an aid to summertime tanning—just slather a can’s worth all over your body. (This one seems a little fruitless, as nothing attracts bees like an open can of Coke. If you decide to try it, you might bring a few extra cans for the ensuing stings.)
Coke’s bubbly black magic isn’t used solely on physical ills, however. Some southern fathers—perhaps out of the same ingrained need to turn the tables and gross out their children that gave us that glorious repast “cornbread in but-termilk”—have handed down the habit of pouring a package of peanuts into a bottle and eating the softened nuts after quaffing down the Coke. Coke has been used for years by cost-conscious Southerners to moisten cakes and countless other desserts (indeed, the Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants even offers Coca-Cola cookbooks). Folks with leftover barbecued meat have been known to retain moisture and grilled flavor by reheating their food in a shallow pan, along with a can or so of the beverage. Pot roasts basted in the elixir stay moist and extratender, folks say. Mixing it with ham drippings, some Southerners even make a gravy with the drink. Truly adventurous souls substitute the beverage for coffee in making that southern specialty, red-eye gravy. These folks, it’s been established, “ain’t from around here.”
One of the main misconceptions about the South is that we drink Coke for breakfast. This isn’t entirely true. We drink Coke most anytime we need refreshment. It’s the original iced latte: cold and caffeinated, and suitably carbonated to boot. In this way we were way ahead of our time.
Breakfast goes well with Coca-Cola for a number of reasons. First, it’s convenient: no waiting around for a can of Coke to brew. Second, you can take it with you, without suffering the imperialistic shame of carting around an insulated cup from one of the big national coffee chains. Most importantly, it tastes good—sweet but slightly bitter, with enough carbonation to fire those lazy synapses even before the caffeine boost kicks in.
Helen Ellis, Alabama novelist and author of Eating the Cheshire Cat, was once asked in an interview what the essential social difference was between southern women and other American women. “First thing that comes to mind: Coca-Cola for breakfast,” she replied. “I can’t imagine hauling myself out of bed at 6:30 a.m. without knowing that little red can is waiting in the fridge. People always tell me I’m a morning person, chipper, a bundle of energy, awake. How do I do it? The answer is easy: Coke for breakfast—it fuels southern women. Coke makes us perky on the outside, while we’re bubbling on the inside.”
Actress and Atlanta native Sela Ward, hired fresh out of college to promote Coke’s biggest rival, the Carolinas-based Pepsi, even fingers Coke as a key to her dramatic development: “I drank Coca-Cola for breakfast,” she once revealed in an interview. “Pretending to like Pepsi was probably my first acting job.”
As of late, even non-Southerners are getting into the act: Lucian Truscott of the New York Times wrote a whole column about the joys of the drink, in which he quotes his friend David Vaught. “The whole coffee thing is a lot more negative,” Vaught told Truscott. “It’s like the difference between a mountain stream running over rocks and a stagnant pond.”
The closest the south ever came to (up)rising again was with the introduction of New Coke. Why, you’d have thought someone came out with pimento-free cheese spread. Terror and anger of a General Sherman variety spread throughout the land. How were we to clean our grout? To polish our bumpers? To clean our toilets? To tenderize our meat? Worse yet, what the hell were we going to drink for breakfast?
Thankfully, the company came to its senses, and New Coke soon faded away, much like all the other colas that have dared to challenge “Classic” Coke’s one-hundred-plus-year southern supremacy.
Perhaps more importantly, Atlanta was spared a second burning.
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2; teaspoon baking powder
1 stick (1/4; pound) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2; cup Coca-Cola
1/4; cup buttermilk
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
Frosting (recipe follows)
1/2; cup broken pecans
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour an 8 × 8 inch cake pan. Mix the sugar, flour, and baking powder in a bowl. Bring the butter, cocoa, and Coca-Cola to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring to blend well. Pour over the dry ingredients gradually, mixing well. Combine the buttermilk, egg, and vanilla in a bowl; mix well. Add to the batter; mix well. Spoon into the prepared pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Turn the cake out onto a platter. Pour the hot frosting over the warm cake; top with the pecans. Let stand until cool.
1/2; stick unsalted butter
1 1/2; tablespoons cocoa powder
3/4; cup Coca-Cola
2 1/4; cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Bring the butter, cocoa, and Coca-Cola to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring to blend well; remove from the heat. Stir in the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Pour over the warm cake.
Yield: 8 servings.
From True Grits, Junior League of Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia. Reprinted from John T. Edge, A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons ©1999. Used by permission.