When a Coke was a Coke…or a Sprite…or a Dr. Pepper

It’s a well-worn cliché that true Southerners refer to all soft drinks as “Coke.” (See our Twanglish Lesson on the subject.) Sure, it may be confusing, inefficient and impractical, but we can live with that.  We’re not in much of a hurry, anyhow. But I left that particular Southernism behind years ago, along with any attempts to dip Skoal or kill fuzzy things with a bolt-action .22.

Recently, though, I felt compelled to take up the old tradition, because I was reminded of how Coke inspired such dedication in the first place.

Though it was arguably the first global brand, Coca-Cola remains a uniquely Southern creation. Invented in a pharmacy in Columbus, Georgia and first sold at an Atlanta soda fountain, Coke is the flavor of the South: stimulating and syrupy sweet, with an acidic bite that makes the sweetness bearable.

photo by J. Stephen Conn (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

In the early 20th Century, the Coca-Cola Company would give country stores free custom-printed signs for their storefronts, provided a Coke logo was attached. The policy not only bought favor with their outlets – hard-working store owners like my great-grandfather – it also made the Coke message ubiquitous in the South. That’s how you build loyalty. That’s how you become the generic term by which all your competitors called.

Times change, though. Southerners started calling drinks by their proper names or adopting other, previously verboten terms like soda or soft drink. In the summer after my high school graduation, I worked concessions at a new $1 movie theater in my hometown of Mobile. The place was packed to the gills every night. We had to move fast and think fast. That meant learning to recognize what people really meant when they ordered drinks.

Anyone who ordered a “Co-cola” wanted a Coke, naturally. But if they ordered a “cold drank,” that was a different matter. (Dr. Pepper, by the way.) A young, black guy ordering a “drank” wanted a Sprite, but if he ordered a “soda,” he meant Cherry Coke. And occasionally, we’d get the old school Southerners who’d order just a “Coke.” The correct response, of course, was, “what kind?”

Coke changed, too. First, they made the worst PR move in the history of American business with the introduction and quick shelving of New Coke. Then the so-called Coca-Cola Classic that took its place wasn’t classic at all.  The flavor had changed. They had replaced the delectable taste of natural cane sugar with the chemically, coat-your-tongue sloppiness of high fructose corn syrup. (Some historical purists will argue the HFCS was there even prior to the introduction of New Coke. I choose to ignore them.)

For more than two decades, we lived with it. What else could we do? It was either this almost-Coke or Pepsi. I’d rather drink warm Clamato.

In the meantime, America got fatter from all the HFCS. The internet grew. Cell phones fell into every pocket. Trade barriers came down. We now lived in a truly global world. Nothing could halt the free flow of information…or products.

Rumors swirled among the Coke faithful, rumors of a place where “real” Coke, sweetened with pure cane sugar, flowed like refreshing streams over towering mountains of cubed ice. That place? A magical land known as Mexico.

The legend of Mexican Coke grew such that it earned its own Wikipedia entry. Rumor was, you could pick up this Holy Grail of sodadom in Hispanic grocery stores. Being a terrible linguist, I could never bring myself to step into a Spanish-language store and ask them to speak English just so I could quench my thirst. So the legend remained just that. That is, until…

I was walking with my family through our local COSTCO. We were turning a corner to work our way up toward the snacks and cereals. There it was. A whole palette of 24-bottle flats of Coca-Cola. There were no flashing lights, no neon signs or any indications whatsoever that these were anything other than ordinary Cokes.

Refresco, indeed.

But something caught my eye: they were in the classic glass bottles – with pop tops, even. Then I spotted it. In small print on the bottles’ labels, was one word: “Refresco.” Refresco? I don’t know what it means, but I know it’s Spanish. Looking closer, I also noticed a word was missing: “Classic.” Spanish labeling and no “Classic?” Could it be? I quickly grabbed a bottle and studied the ingredients. Ingredient number two: sugar. No ‘croses or ‘toses. No corn or syrup to be seen. Just. Plain. Sugar. The legend was real!

We put two bottles in the fridge as soon as we got home and locked the others away in a safe place. The wait for them to chill was interminable. I passed the time introspectively, questioning myself. What would it taste like? Would I even know if the taste is different? What if it simply can’t live up to my own expectations? Should we have bought a wine cooler so the bottles wouldn’t have to slum with the lesser soft drinks?

After the children were in bed, my wife and I popped open two bottles like opening a good apertif. We eschewed glasses and ice, choosing to drink them the “right way” – straight from the bottle. And it was good. It was very, very good. Did it live up to my expectations? Honestly, no. Nothing could. Nevertheless, it is still hands-down the best soft drink in the world.

It is a Coke. Everything else is just a coke.

16 Responses to “When a Coke was a Coke…or a Sprite…or a Dr. Pepper”

  1. Love your article. My favorite part was:
    “And occasionally, we’d get the old school Southerners who’d order just a “Coke.” The correct response, of course, was, “what kind?”

    Being an old school girl, myself, I get asked this all the time!

  2. All my life, I have referred to any carbonated beverage as a Coke. I had a cousin who was a “RC Cola” man. I hated RC’s. I always, I mean always had to have a coke when he was around…. That’s good ole southern spite…. Great site…

  3. Truth! I grew up in Texas but my mom’s family is from Michigan. We were visiting for a time one summer when I was in elementary school and I ordered a coke at a restaurant; I was completely confused when the waiter didn’t ask me what kind I wanted but just brought me a Coke.

  4. I Love This! My Dad has been saying for years that the coke recipe has changed and Now I see why!

    I was born and raised in Mississippi but currently live in NH. People up here get very confused when I ask for a coke and mean a soda! Ahhhhhh…..

    • Sounds like this site is just the tool you need to educate all those New Hampshireans (New Hampshirts? New Hamsters? Whatever…) about the way of more cultured climes. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  5. I was born in Arkansas where soft drinks were pops so moving to northeast Mississippi in the ’60s required becoming fluent in a different brand of southern-speak. So I totally get the coke as all soft drinks thing. But when I moved to Biloxi in the early seventies where Barq’s Root Beer was king I quickly figured out that when somebody offered to buy you a root beer they were really offering to buy a Coke or a Dr. Pepper or a Pepsi, even.

  6. The other day, my sister told my seven-year-old nephew to bring her a coke. He came back with a Sunkist. She said, “I asked you to bring me a Coke.” He said, “You didn’t say what kind!” During his short life, he’s lived in Birmingham, AL, Memphis, TN, and now in our hometown, Jackson, MS. The child is Southern to the bone.

    I discovered Mexican Coke here in Seattle a couple of years ago. It may not exactly be “the real thing,” but it’s close enough for me. Give me real sugar or give me, um, water.

  7. YES, the Mexican cokes are real, even here in a small IL/WI border town. Now, you have to be careful not to get the 6 pack of coke in bottles, you have to go down the aisle where the taco shells & seasonings are for the taller individual bottles of Coke “Refresco”, and you will be glad you did. Nothing tastes better! Even my kids have to get one for a treat when we go to the store. Normally, my 9 year old can’t even wait until it’s chilled, he will drink it warm & says it’s “that good.” I love how you hid the extras, I know what I will do with mine too (or they will be devoured by the kids & half the neighborhood buddies too).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Only Thing Better than a Co-Cola | Real Southern Men - October 25, 2011

    […] talked before about the cultural importance of Coca-Cola in the South, especially “real” Coke, sweetened with cane sugar. And we’ve […]

  2. Southern Sweets Showdown Round 1: #14 Raw Sugar Cane vs. #3 Fig Preserves | Real Southern Men - November 10, 2011

    […] cane goes, you know my feelings about cane sugar as the sweetener of choice, as evidenced in my rhapsodic pining for Mexican Coke. But when you take that raw cane stalk, hack off a ten-inch length of it and start whittling back […]

  3. The Peaches are Cream and the Coke’s in the Oven | Real Southern Men - December 12, 2011

    […] pretty much define Southern goodness for you, well, I got no help for you. In a region where people ask if you want a Coke, then ask you what kind, a chocolate Coca-Cola Cake is the perfect combination of sweet baked goodness and tradition. […]

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