food

Somewhere Else: Roy Rogers

A quick note:  This was originally written in December 2002 on my old site “Inane Crap” as part of an occasional series called “Somewhere Else”, which detailed random road trips and travels.  Since I mentioned this essay on the latest episode of the podcast, I decided to reprint it here.  It hasn’t been changed except for some proofreading edits.

-Tom

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The interior of the Roy Rogers at the Indian Castle Service Plaza on the New York State Thruway.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Soundtrack for this Trip:  Counting Crows, “Hard Candy” and Jimmy Eat World, “A Praise Chorus”

Somewhere else? Well yeah. The idea was that having a good part of the day to myself, I would take off for a while and journal my experience. I have spent a lot of time reading other people’s accounts of their travels and while I won’t be driving from one end of the country to the other any time soon, a day trip is just as good. Do you have an idea of somewhere I should go that’s not too far from where I am? Contact me.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002
11:00 a.m.: Sayville, New York

“I didn’t think that she returned it,
We left New York in a whirl …”

So I’ve promised that I would go to Best Buy with Nancy if she went on this little mini-road trip with me. After all, my parents are in need of a new universal remote, seeing that years of throwing the current one across the room at one another have caused it to stop working. Hey, I know I should have been less lazy throughout the years and maybe walked the remote over to the person on the other couch, but that’s a moot point now. Besides, shit happens.

Anyway, one of the great myths about Long Island is that there are no Roy Rogers restaurants, something anyone from the area will tell you with an authoritative tone, even though “Long Island” to them probably doesn’t extend east of Patchogue. I believed it myself for years, until last December when Amanda and I were driving to Smith Point and I passed the Roy Rogers in Shirley. It was kind of like a mirage, something I couldn’t believe was there, because I hadn’t been on William Floyd Parkway in Shirley for years, not since I used to go to the beach with my grandparents in their camper. The Roy Rogers was there then, and still is.

There used to be a lot more of these restaurants on Long Island, but I believe the corporate ownership of Roy Rogers’ changing hands over the last 10 or 15 years has led to their being eradicated throughout the northeast, with the exception of turnpike, thruway, and interstate rest stops, where the restaurant has taken on a very mythic role, at least for wayward Long Islanders like myself. In college, the highlight of driving home from Baltimore was stopping at a Roy’s and having a cheeseburger, fries, and two biscuits.

Of course, I’d end up stopping again further up the road because let’s face it–greasy buttermilk biscuits don’t necessarily make for good driving food. But that didn’t matter, because since the Roy’s at the corner of Johnson Avenue and Sunrise Highway closed and their burgers and biscuits became only available on the highway, the restaurant became a must-stop destination. I’m apt to say that Roy Rogers is the Howard Johnson’s of my generation–a fast fix, a good meal, and one that is slowly disappearing from our nation’s highways.

As we head down Sunrise Highway, I am also wondering if my first visit to a non-turnpike Roy Rogers in a few years isn’t going to be one of those bad nostalgia letdowns. I mean, I have great memories of Roy’s in Sayville from when I was in elementary school. Tom Hackett and I would get cheeseburgers and load them up with so many fixins that we could barely get our mouths around what we were calling “Buster Burgers.” We also once had a conversation about fried chicken–how we preferred breasts to legs–that probably could have been misinterpreted by anyone listening in if we weren’t 12 years old. So my question during this trip, of course, is will my memories of the place be soured by what is more than likely sub par fast food?

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Foreground: my sister, eating a chicken sandwich.  Background:  my 1998 Honda Civic.

11:30 a.m., Shirley, New York

“Someone is going to ask you what it’s all about
Stick around, nostalgia won’t let you down.”

Of course, my sister finds it hilarious that I want to go to a Roy Rogers with her and take pictures of her eating a chicken sandwich. However, that’s because she’s one of maybe five people in this world who are as odd as I am. For the record, I get a cheeseburger but opted to take it plain because I am craving French fries more than I am craving burger. And I don’t go for the biscuits because being that this is the first fast food burger I’ve eaten since March of 2001, I don’t want to make myself too sick. Besides, I’m just here for the ambiance.

And what ambiance it is. The deep red and tan walls, the western-themed paintings, the garbage can with “Thanks” carved into its swinging door, the serve-yourself soda machine with Fanta root beer, and the fixins bar. Oh, the fixins bar. That’s what always made Roy Rogers so great, right? You could add as many pieces of lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onions as you wanted, as well as ketchup, mayo, mustard, and horseradish. You could very well make the ultimate burger out of something that was probably two steps above the late, lamented Marriott Burger of my alma mater.

Nancy and I finish our food and head for westbound Sunrise Highway so we can stand in line at Best Buy for 10 minutes and run into one of our neighbors on the way through the parking lot. We return to Sayville at around 12:30, and considering we’ve gone shopping on Christmas Eve, that’s not too bad a trip and I can rest happily. Well, at least until I have the desire to go somewhere else.

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Requiem for a Pint

235px-americoneupdatedlogoRecently I discovered that I can no longer eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s without serious digestive repercussions. I have never been lactose intolerant or had any other dietary restriction or need, but on a Friday night a few weeks ago after downing an entire pint of Americone Dream, I found myself planted on the toilet, praying for the sweet release of death.

As someone who has been trying to lose weight for some time, this discovery should be a welcome one–a craving for a pint of ice cream can now be quickly subdued by the reminder that I will spent a significant amount of time testing the limits of my house’s plumbing–but it kind of annoys and saddens me because I’ve been eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for more than 30 years. Whatever middle age is starting to do to my body in these days of sleep apnea, anxiety, and gout, has now claimed one of my favorite desserts.

Ice cream in general has had a constant presence in my life since I was little. My parents usually had a half-gallon of some sort of ice cream–Breyer’s, Edy’s, or the abomination known as Sealtest Ice Milk–in the freezer; birthday cakes were always from Carvel; and I spent many nights of my formative years eating sundaes at our local Friendly’s. But truly the only thing resembling a scoop shop in the greater Sayville area was the Baskin-Robbins on Sunrise Highway and Oakdale-Bohemia Road, a store too far away to reach by bike. The names Ben & Jerry were completely unknown to me until a family vacation in 1987.

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The sign for Pizza Chef and Arctic Dreams in New London, New Hampshire c. 2011.  By then, the store had stopped serving Ben & Jerry’s and was serving Annabelle’s Ice Cream.  Image courtesy of Yelp.

Arctic Dreams was an independently owned ice cream shop in New London, New Hampshire, which is one of those small towns in new England that you pass by or drive through on your way to somewhere else. My parents rent a cabin on Kezar lake, which is just south of New London in North Sutton, a town that literally has one intersection, and at least a few times ever year we would head up to New London for a meal at Pizza Chef followed by ice cream at Arctic Dreams. It happened so often that it became a tradition, even though Pizza Chef was one of the few restaurants in New London where you could take a family of picky kids who could be real pains in the ass when it came to what was on the menu. Then again, very few kids aren’t pains in the ass about at least something.

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The Arctic Dreams menu/”flavor board”.  Image courtesy of Yelp.

Anyway, I can’t remember if the food at Pizza Chef was any good–the fact that a Google street view shot had it still open as of 2014 with the same 1980s-looking logo on the sign suggests they’ve been doing something right–but walking into Arctic Dreams that first time was a revelation. The place was cold (you could expect that from an ice cream shop) and instead of the constant hum and pull of soft serve machines I’d been used to from Carvel, there was a billboard-sized list of ice cream flavors and the smell of freshly made waffle cones. My ten-year-old mind was completely blown the moment I first stepped into the place and I just stood there for at least a full minute reading every flavor on that board until I eventually settled on what would become my all-time favorite scoop shop variety: vanilla chocolate chunk. No, not mint chocolate chunk, but vanilla ice cream with huge chunks of chocolate.

Even though I wanted a waffle cone stuffed full of ice cream, I was probably crabbed at to “just get a cup”–I was a notoriously sloppy eater and we could finish cups faster in order to beat the imaginary traffic back to the lake–the trips to Arctic Dreams were some of the best things about those vacations. Sure, there were trips to tourist destinations, days spent rowing and swimming in the late, and tours of the campus of Dartmouth College that were truly memorable, but even when I was at my most surly level of teenager, the ice cream was worth it.

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The Ben & Jerry’s pint in the mid-1980s.  Image courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s.

But I didn’t get to be planted on my toilet at midnight doing an impromptu ab workout while slowly realizing I did this to myself by visiting an ice cream place in New Hampshire in the mid-1980s. It was the pint, that package of goodness now ubiquitous to the supermarket that 30 years ago was a novelty. Ben & Jerry’s introduced their pints in 1980 and the packaging was so lo-fi, I would have believed it if you told me that they printed the labels by hand in the back of Arctic Dreams. A cartoon drawing of a guy making ice cream was on the front and you could tell what flavor you were buying by reaidng the lid, which also had a picture of Ben and Jerry. There was something special about the Ben & Jerry’s pint, just like their competitor, Haagen-Dazs, made their pints seem like indulgence beyond the basic bitch half gallons of Breyer’s chocolate and vanilla you were fishing out of an icebox at Waldbaum’s.

When I hit my twenties, that novelty wore off, and the pint was more or less a standard-issue single serving. Oh sure, the nutritional label on the pint says that a serving is half a cup and that meant that four people coud share that pint of Half-Baked who probably sat at home eating gallons of the stuff while playing three video games simultaneously and barking commands at his parents. So I made up for this childhood injustice by buying whatever the hell I wanted whenever the hell I wanted no matter how slow my metabolism got.

And you’d think that because Ben & Jerry’s was bought by Unilever in 2000 and therefore became even more widely available, getting the right pint would be one of the easiest things in the world. I mean, it was if you weren’t picky, and there were times when I would choose the Helvetica that is Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (Ben & Jerry’s very first flavor, by the way, is vanilla, the Times New Roman of ice cream; the jury is still out on which flavor is comic sans). But then there were those times when I didn’t want just any ice cream and if I were to indulge a sweet tooth and take the calorie hit, I was going to do it at mach two with my hair on fire by wolfing down a pint of Brownie Batter.

The problem often was that not every place carried the same flavors and some of the more limited batches could only be found in a few select stores. At the height of my Ben & Jerry’s love, I had committed to memory exactly where I needed to go for what. For instance, the Harris Teeter in Pentagon City had vanilla caramel fudge but if I wanted a pint of Festivus (The Flavor for the Rest of Us), I had to drive to the Shoppers Food Warehouse at Potomac Yard. And I wanted some sort of limited edition batch that I actually read about in the news, I had to Indiana Jones it by constructing The Staff of Ra so I could figure out which Giant within a five-mile radius carried Marsha Marsha Marshmallow or something.

Of course, such quests had fleeting rewards and over the years, I got more interested in expanding my waistline via cookies and cake, which I’ll now have to stick to lest I turn my digestive tract into the very bowels of hell. Then again, you never know … I may want to dance with The Devil again.

Fizzy Fuzzy Memories

So I’ve relived my experience with Coke II and it really made me remember one of the things I love about writing this blog–digging up those odd, random things in the culture that I remember and poking around to see if I can find out anything else about them.  I will, of course, confess that the only time I ever remember seeing Coke II other than the can I had back in 2005 was at random on the shelf of Grand Union while accompanying my dad on a quick grocery run back in the day.  But soda as a part of my childhood–or maybe even as a not-part of my childhood (if such a term exists)–sticks out in my mind and as I reread my old blog post, I started thinking about how well I remember some of the more off-brand or random varieties of soft drinks rather than say the countless gallons of Coke or Pepsi products that I’ve gulped down in my lifetime.  On the occasions where soda would make its way into the house–at parties, for instance–I distinctly remember labels beyond Coke and Pepsi.  And when we went somewhere, there was a whole different world of beverage.  Looking at my list, it wasn’t EPCOT’s “Club Cool” per se, but I still think it’s a decent assortment.

Mets RC Can

A 1986 Mets World Championship RC Cola can.  (Image Source:  eBay)

RC Cola:  I’ll start with a soda brand that is actually pretty old and still well known.  RC has been around since 1905 and should be up there with Coke or Pepsi, but I’ve always put it in a distant third place behind the other two despite its place in cola history–for example, RC was the first company to put soda in a can (and later in aluminum cans) and in 1958 would introduce the first-ever diet cola, Diet Rite.

And yet, I will always associate RC Cola with the Mets, who sold RC and Diet Rite at Shea Stadium in the 1980s.  I can picture ice-less cola full to the brim that was guaranteed to spill at least a little when you bought it from the guy walking up and down the steps of the upper deck.  Which, by the way, was a feat in itself because those steps were so steep that you practically needed a Sherpa to make it up to the top of the stadium.

In the years since, the Mets have changed their main cola–for a while it was Pepsi and I think now it’s Coca-Cola, but it’s been so many years since I have been to a Mets game that I’m not entirely sure if that’s true.  I’m honestly not sure I’ve had it since the 1980s or 1990s, even though the brand is still around and is currently owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple company, which touts it as a “favorite of cola drinkers throughout America.”

Fanta:  This is neither an obscure or random soda–in fact, Fanta’s various fruit flavors are still around and popular and the brand had a pretty visible ad campaign featuring a group of singing, dancing spokeswomen called The Fantanas in the early 2000s.

 

The history of the Fanta cola flavor is actually fascinating, as it was created in Germany in World War II to be used as a cola substitute since the Coca-Cola plants in Germany were largely cut off from America and therefore couldn’t get shipments of materials they needed to make the beverage.  This, of course, is information I discovered when writing this blog post and had no bearing on my various encounters with Fanta over the years.  My personal association with Fanta goes back to the 1980s and its orange soda and root beer flavors.  The orange soda, I recall, was one of those sodas that might have been on tap at a restaurant in place of Sunkist or Crush and since orange wasn’t my go-to flavor, I never paid much attention to it.

Fanta can

A 1980s-era can of Fanta, which I admit I never actually saw (Image source: eBay).

Root beer, however, was my primary concern whenever I was allowed to get soda at a restaurant.  I’d, of course, get a Coke if I had to, but whenever root beer was on the menu, I was there.  And very often, it was Fanta, especially if the establishment sold Coke products.  Sayville Pizza was one such place and I remember its brown, white, and blue logo being on the soda machine behind the main counter whenever my friends and I would ride our bikes up there to get two slices and a soda for lunch during the summer.   It wasn’t a particularly memorable flavor of root beer, and the Coca-Cola company would replace it with the more distinguishable Barq’s in the late 1990s, but I always think of this soda more than other root beers like A&W or Ramblin’ Root Beer (remember that?) because what it did was set the “default” taste for root beer in my mind (which probably explains why I don’t like Barq’s very much.

Hires Root BeerHires Root Beer:  Speaking of root beer, a brand that I drank a lot of when I was younger but I have specific memories of is Hires Root Beer.  This, like RC Cola and Fanta, has a much longer history than I expected and is, in fact, the second-longest produced soft drink in the United States.  It was originally created in Philadelphia but I actually always associate it with New England; specifically, I place it in New Hampshire and the years my family spent vacationing on Kezar Lake in North Sutton.  And while I am sure that my time at the lake and time visiting Weirs Beach and Lake Winnepesaukee is a blog post and podcast episode to rival Rob Kelly’s “Mountain Comics,” I will say that Hires was a pretty popular brand of root beer up there and I think that we had at least one or two pieces of merchandise–trinkets, magnets, pencil holders–with the logo on it because we had cashed in a billion arcade tickets from playing hours upon hours of skee-ball.

I don’t have much to say about the taste of Hires, except that I drank a lot of it whenever I went up there, probably because it tasted like Fanta or whatever I expected root beer to taste like.  But those weeks in the summer spent pumping quarters into arcade machines new and old and walking up to the local general store to buy baseball cards or Mad Magazines are always going to be associated with this one logo or can of soda.  It’s all another story for another time, but at least worth a mention here.

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Photo by Paxton Holley (via Flickr)

7-Up Gold:  Now we’re getting into something that really no longer exists.  7-Up Gold was an attempt by the “Uncola” to actually create a cola and it was a massive flop.  Only available in 1987 and 1988, the company, which had previously had success with Cherry 7-Up (a soda that I could have also put on this list), decided to completely go against what it bragged about in its ad campaigns from the early 1980s (not a cola, never had caffeine) and basically tried to clone Coke and Pepsi.  In a 1989 New York Times article, then 7-Up president Roger Easley said that “The product was misunderstood by the consumer.  People have a clear view of what 7-Up products should be — clear and crisp and clean, and no caffeine.  7-Up Gold is darker and does have caffeine, so it doesn’t fit the 7-Up image.”

The cola is described in the article as having actually come from the Dr. Pepper Company, which had merged with 7-Up in the previous year, as having a “reddish caramel hue” and a flavor that doesn’t necessarily taste like cola but “tastes something like ginger ale with a cinnamon-apple overtone and a caffeine kick.”  I honestly barely remember that, but I do remember being lured in by commercials like this:

For me, who was so uncool in 1988 that I thought this was cool, I was sold and wanted to try some.  I remember that my parents did cave at one point at bought at least one bottle of it for my birthday party in 1988 and I actually bragged to my friends that we had 7-Up Gold.  It’s no wonder I went straight to the bottom of the social ladder over the next few years.

Schweppes Raspberry Ginger Ale:  As I mentioned, soda was not something you got in my house when I was a kid, but my parents did sometimes grab ginger ale off of the shelf and that would be the drink of choice for my sister and I after we had finished our chocolate milk at dinner.  Yeah, nothing says dessert at my house in the 1980s more than Sealtest Ice Milk washed down with Raspberry Schweppes.

Now, Schweppes still makes the raspberry ginger ale, although John Cleese is no longer used in its advertisements.  I don’t really drink ginger ale at all, unless I’ve spent the day vomiting.  So this is one of those that definitely is left in the past and is probably key in why I went buck wild with drinking soda my freshman year of college.

C&C Cola:  Finally, there’s C&C Cola.  Headquartered in New Jersey and still in production today, C&C is one of those near-generic “off brand” sodas that makes its way onto store shelves next to store brand such as Master Choice and other off-brand colas like Cott and Shasta.  C&C, however, was one of those off-brand sodas that actually made a small dent in the northeast.  No, it couldn’t exactly compete with Coke or Pepsi, but it made enough of an effort to gain what it could in the 1980s with a wide variety of flavors as well as commercials:

For my parents, C&C was the soda you got when you were having big family parties.  My dad would drive up to Thrifty Beverage, which was our local beer and soda “distributor” (i.e., a huge warehouse of beer and soda that also had a retail space) and buy several flats of C&C in various flavors.  And by various, I mean various:  cola, diet cola, ginger ale, root beer, cream soda, lemon-line, black cherry, grape, and orange.  These were packaged very basically, with each flavor getting a different-colored can (i.e., lime green for lemon-lime, brown for root beer, orange for orange, tan for cream soda, grape for purple).  I think that over the course of that party, my sister and I would try to drink one of every single flavor; then, we’d try to stretch out the leftovers for days.

C&C is still around and still independently owned and operated out of New Jersey.  I don’t recall seeing any of the soda down here in Virginia (although my local blood bank has plenty of Shasta on hand), but a look at its website shows that it’s still making all of the flavors that I enjoyed when I was younger as well as several novelty flavors like cotton candy.

At present, my main soda of choice is Coke Zero and Brett isn’t much of a soda kid–he likes orange soda and a few other things but will usually go for HI-C or lemonade whenever we’re at a restaurant.  We also now live in a world where I can actually order a number of these sodas online–I don’t know if I would or if it would even be worth it, but I can.  Still, who knows random liquid my local grocery store will serve up in the future?

 

Looking for the Real Thing

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The full can of Coke II I purchased on eBay in 2005.

A quick note: this first appeared on my old blog, Inane Crap, back in 2005.

Soda has always fascinated me. I think it’s mainly because when I was a kid, I didn’t get to drink it very often. Aside from the occasional bottle of Schweppes raspberry ginger ale, all of the dinnertime drinks at my house consisted of chocolate milk and Tetley instant iced tea. Of course, that’s not as healthy as you think — it was whole milk, and Tetley iced tea mix is essentially brown-colored sugar water. That doesn’t mean that I completely missed out on drinking soda (I wasn’t raised by one of those nuts). It was, according to my parents “a treat” to have a bottle of Coke in the fridge, so whenever there was one present, my sister and I usually went to town.

My lack of carbonated elixir during my elementary school years meant that I kind of went hog wild drinking it in college, but it also meant that I more or less missed out on one of the most infamous screw ups of the 1980s. That is, I’m hard pressed to remember New Coke. I knew of it, of course, but being that I was eight years old when it debuted in 1985, I cannot recall how it tasted, even though it’s pretty likely that I had it at a family party or some other function. I’ve always been curious about its taste — after all, it was only on the market as Coke for a short time because the backlash upon its introduction was so negative, it made an anti-abortion rally look like an episode of Barney & Friends. Coke rescinded, rebranded, and reintroduced its original soda as Coca-Cola Classic in 1986 and New Coke became Coke II. It was available nationwide until the mid-1990s before being phased out in all but a few Midwestern states.

As I tend to be with most things that involve random foodstuffs, I’ve been wanting to try this cola for a very long time. I looked for it wherever I could, and even had a scout in Chicago try to track it down. Alas, that was all to no avail, and a few weeks ago, I discovered why. Coke has a 1-800 number that you can call with weird queries such as this, and one day while bored at work, I decided to give them a call and ask about Coke II. My operator was a very nice woman who seemed genuinely interested, and amused by my question. She put me on hold and a few minutes later, told me that unfortunately, Coke II was no longer manufactured. I thanked her and hung up, then turned to the Internet, where I quickly found a full can for purchase. $5.00 and a week later, a full can of Coke II that had expired in November 1996 was sitting on a shelf in my refrigerator, waiting for me to formulate a plan for drinking it.

Okay, I know how to drink a can of soda. But as I examined this artifact, with its red-white-and-blue design, lack of a “big mouth,” and bold italic “Coke II” logo, I realized that I had an important choice to make. I could crack open the can and go for it, or drag it out in some elaborate and unnecessary way.

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C2, which was discontinued in 2007. (image via Wikipedia)

Naturally, I went for the latter and decided to conduct an experiment — more specifically, a taste test. Armed with a couple of dollars, I went to a local convenience store and bought three bottles of soda. The first was Coca-Cola, which was an obvious choice, since it was the original cola formula (some Coke aficionados claim it’s not. I don’t care). The second was Pepsi. This was important because it’s the raison d’être for New Coke because back in the early 1980s, Coke lost to Pepsi in a nationwide taste test. Lastly, I purchased a bottle of C2, which had been introduced as a “low carb” cola during last year’s Atkins-induced societal meat sweats. It’s essentially the halfway point between Coke and Tab (which is a lab accident all its own), but since it apes the Coke II name, it kind of made sense to give it a try.

The first thing I evaluated was the sodas’ color and aroma. I would have gone with the packaging, but since Coke II was not available in a bottle back then, I felt that it was at a slight disadvantage. I opened each soda and poured a glass, sampling and smelling. Coke had a musky scent, kind of like Old Spice; and it had a color to match. What was interesting is that Coke also had the most violent bubbling out of all four. Pepsi’s color was brighter and the smell was sweeter. C2 and Coke II were very similar to their inspirations — C2 looked like Coke, while Coke II actually held its own as a Pepsi impersonator.

I did two distinct taste tests for each soda. The first was a straight sip. Like one does when he samples wine, I took in the bouquet of each glass and then sipped the soda, swirling it in my mouth before swallowing, and then cleared my palate with water. Coke tastes much like its scent. It’s heavy, thick and biting in a way that’s actually a bit indescribable, but I guess “licorice” would come pretty close. Similarly, C2 was heavy and lived up to its hype. In other words, it had the heavy, sugary taste and texture of Coke. But it also had a distinct aftertaste, which you’d probably associate more with Diet Coke. I don’t think they’re going to be replacing the much-beloved “silver bullet of cola” anytime soon, though.

When it came to Pepsi, I pretty much knew what to expect. It has a much sweeter taste and usually isn’t as heavy as Coke. However, there are few things in the world that are worse than warm Pepsi, especially when it goes flat and takes on the taste of orthodontic cement. I thankfully got my Pepsi down the hatch in time for it to be both cold and popping. It’s not my favorite cola at all, but it did serve as a nice prelude to what would be the ultimate taste test and the whole reason I got involved in this endeavor.

I cleansed my palate and took a nice-sized sip of Coke II. It was kind of thick and went down like maple syrup. It tasted like musty Pepsi, and I found myself making several faces of disgust.

But that wasn’t the end. After all, what is soda without a snack? I grabbed a box of reduced fat Cheez-Its and decided to test each soda’s snack food interaction abilities. To make this a not at all scientific process, I grabbed a handful of crackers and shoved them into my pie hole in a very Blutarsky-like fashion. After chewing for a few moments, I had a nice-sized bolus going and decided that was the moment at which to wash the Cheez-Its down. Coke added phlegm and didn’t help with swallowing. Pepsi was once again too sweet, but did break the bolus up quite nicely. C2 was exactly like coke and the aftertaste made me twitch, which can’t be a good sign. Finally, the Coke II was a great swallowing aid, but the musty taste made the crackers taste kind of aged. You know, like exposure to nine-year-old soda instantly made them stale or something.

Next was the chemistry portion of the test. When I was a little kid, I had this secret soda formula that I’d use whenever I was at Burger King. I’d start with a base of Coke and add Sprite, then orange soda. Every once in a while, I’d add a splash of root beer for some bite. Yeah, it was disgusting, but when you’re a kid, you’ll eat dirt. In the spirit of those grand experiments of my youth, I mixed all four sodas in one pint glass. The amounts were relatively equal. I mean, I didn’t measure or anything, but I did briefly count to three before I finished pouring. The color stayed the same, obviously, and the aroma was more Coke than Pepsi. Being that I was uncertain of how the various sugar compositions would blend and/or settle, I stirred the concoction with a spoon. Said spoon neither tarnished nor corroded, so I took that as a good sign. I let the fizz settle and then took a mighty swig.

Now, I don’t usually soak my dirty socks in water and then wring them out into a glass, but I’m sure that by mixing these sodas, I captured that particular taste better than anyone ever has. At first, all I could taste was Coke, and it was okay, but upon my second sip, I was instantly transported back to my high-school gym locker room, with my once-was-white-but-now-is-gray-because-I-never-washed-it T-shirt and obliterated Chuck Taylors. It was a strange kind of nostalgia that started pleasantly but ended in horror and me pouring the rest of the crap down the sink. Thankfully, I can still see clearly.

My final test was the most important, and that was endurance. No, I wasn’t going to leave all four sodas out in the hot sun for hours and see how they decomposed or anything like that. I was going to chug. This was the experiment that had the most human error associated with it, especially considering I’m not the best at chugging any sort of beverage. But I did my best and went to town on all four. Coke lasted 5 seconds and was followed up with a concise but loud belch, which was disappointing. Usually, Diet Coke makes me sound like Booger, and I was hoping for that from at least one of these sodas. The Pepsi was a second less and had a more baritone belch, but it was just as short. The closest I got to a Diet Coke belch was with the C2, which, after a 7-second chug, had me let fly with three voluminous notes that would make any pro proud.

I was able to chug Coke II the longest, for 8 seconds, and when I didn’t feel a belch, I went back for more, finishing the can a few moments later. No belch came after that, either, as I wanted to vomit so badly that all I could do was gag for about thirty seconds before crushing the can and then downing about a liter of water so I could taste something that wasn’t noxious.

My Mustard Problem

McDonald's cheeseburgerI don’t really eat fast food, but a few weeks ago, I found myself having very little choice.  I was in a hotel in Williamsburg, Virginia and since I was attending a conference by day and doing a lot of work and a lot of writing at night, I stayed close to the hotel and wound up eating a lovely combination of Wendy’s, Subway, and McDonald’s for dinner.

The McDonald’s was a really new-looking building, but I am 100% sure that it is the same McDonald’s my family at at 30 years ago when we took our first trip to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens.  It was in a location that I remember clearly–way out on the highway near Busch Gardens, and one of the few places we could find where everyone was willing to eat something.  It was also where I first encountered mustard on a hamburger.

I don’t know how many people reading this will believe me, but I grew up without mustard being put on a hamburger.  Mustard, in my mind, was for hot dogs, and ketchup was for hamburgers.  So whatever my parents would take us to McDonald’s or Burger King, I’d get a hamburger and it would just have ketchup on it.  But whenever we went to a McDonald’s outside the tri-state area, there would be this weird yellow crap on the bun that made the burger taste weird and I hated it–so much that I am usre my sister and I didn’t want to eat the burgers, and then we discovered that we could mask the taste of mustard by putting a metric ton of extra ketchup on top of the mustard.

This would be the case of years afterward, and my wife found it incredibly odd that we would do this.  Looking back, it seems that when it comes to fast food, you actually have variation among condiments int he various regions of the country and even between different restaurants (I believe that some places put mayonnaise on their burgers), which is odd because I would think that the purpose of a fast food place would be to give you the same cheap culinary experience no matter where you go.

My relationship with fast food would wax and wane over the years–I sore off of it in 2002 or so after reading Fast Food Nation.  In the 15 years since, I’ve gone to McDonald’s literally three times, on occasions where I really have few to no other option.  It just honestly doesn’t seem worth it since I have gotten much better at cooking and have found better sources for quickly made food.

I still don’t put mustard on my hamburgers, though.

Origin Story Episode 27

Origin Story Episode 27 Website CoverKraven meets his end in the penultimate chapter of Kraven’s Last Hunt as I take a look at “Thunder” from The Amazing Spider-Man #294. Plus, I spend 15 minutes talking about ice cream.

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

 

Amazing_Spider-Man_Vol_1_294

Oh, and as a bonus, here’s the Carvel commercial from the second half of the episode:

Modern Diner

1:43 a.m.
(Conversation on a Diner Napkin)

Rain falls to the sidewalk
beside a lonely crowded roadside diner,
where I’m wondering what it was about her
that could have stopped the world for so long.

The exact handwriting, shape of numbers–
lines a paper napkin
with her phone number
in faded gray pencil and that smudge
always a backdrop for conversation.

And smiling.

I remember smiling
and she did the same
even though the music stopped
and the words were erased
by the rain ticking off my umbrella
into the night.

I wrote that poem for a creative writing class. in the fall of 1997.  It’s not a particularly great poem, nor is it based on anything that actually happened or anyone I know.  I am pretty sure that the inspiration was more along the lines of an imaginary idea, a fictional story where two people enter a diner and one leaves heartbroken, the only thing left to show for it is something scribbled on a napkin–notes, a phone number, maybe something much deeper.  It didn’t matter.

But the geographical inspiration was very real.  Sitting on Main Street not too far from the intersection with Greene Avenue, the Sayville Modern Diner was just about everything you would expect from a restaurant with the word “diner” in its name–a greasy spoon filled with vinyl-covered booths, the sounds of silverware clanking on thick earthenware dishes, and the smells of a grill that had seen countless omelets and cheeseburgers.  It was not haute cuisine by any means and even though the menu was pretty extensive, any time I was in there, I ordered one of two things:  some sort of omelet with a toasted bagel, orange juice, and coffee; or a cheeseburger deluxe.  Well, that’s not 100% accurate because there were those times when I was feeling extra fancy and got a hot open turkey sandwich, but really it was those two items, which are diner standards.

The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996.  Taken from a 1997 calendar.  Photo by Pat Link.

The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996. Taken from a 1997 calendar. Photo by Pat Link.

While breakfast after midnight is something you can get in quite a number of places outside Long Island (I have a number of memories involving late-night runs to Denny’s outside of Baltimore), I have to say that there are few if any places without the word “diner” in their name that really know what a cheeseburger deluxe is.  And yes, there are better hamburgers out there, burgers with higher quality ingredients and all sorts of creative sauces.  I love those places, don’t get me wrong, but there is something about the simple perfection of a single patty on a bun served with fries, onion rings, and a pickle (with the option of topping it with lettuce, tomato, and onions).  You don’t need anything else.

Of course, the food at a place like the Modern Diner is not the reason you go to a place like the Modern Diner.  I’ve noticed that diner culture has been fetishized over the last few years because of the culinary hate crime that is Guy Fieri, but turn away from his shtick and walk into a diner and you find something incredibly genuine that cannot be mass-produced.  Oh, it’s been tried–I’m sure there are still a few Silver Diner restaurants left at local shopping malls, but that place felt more like bad theme park kitsch as opposed to an actual diner.

That’s because a real diner feels worn in.  It’s the type of place where you can go in, get a booth, and aside from getting food and refills, you can be ignored.  You can allow yourself to disappear into that booth as long as possible.  The Modern Diner, when I was a kid, had this brown and gold decor that clearly came from the 1970s and at some point in the Eighties, they remodeled with the same dull magenta color you’d find in your average doctor’s office waiting room.  I’m trying to remember if they remodeled one more time and for some reason keep picturing a seafoam green motif, but I’m not sure.  Decor aside, if I was with my friends, those booths were the entire world for an hour or two.

Sometimes, the conversations were memorable; most of the time they were complete mundane.  Looking back, I feel that time spent there was our part of a ritual that had existed since time immemorial.  You’d make plans to go out and no matter what you did that night, you’d wind up at the diner.  Billy Joel put Brenda and Eddie there.  Garry Marshall had The Fonz set up shop in the bathroom.  George Lucas had Steve Bolander drown his sorrows in a vinyl-cushioned booth.  Barry Levinson wrote an entire movie called Diner that remains one of the all-time great friendship films.  Even when I (badly) wrote teenage characters, I’d have them hang out at the greasy spoon, giving them a moment of pause in a hectic plot or providing a place where moments of truth were had.  They are moments of importance, or in the case of the poem above, moments that are fleeting.  It’s something that is easy to recognize yet tough to capture in exactly the right way.

The Monday before this post went live, the Sayville Modern Diner served its last meal.  The owner, a former classmate of mine, apparently decided to sell, leaving the diner to be turned into a sushi/Asian fusion restaurant.  While I hadn’t been there in nearly a decade, I can definitely say I will miss it, even though there are other diners in town and other diners on Long Island, meaning that the idea of the diner will continue even though this one has closed its doors.