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Old Coke and the New South 

It Ain't Just for Breakfast Anymore

Larry Brown liked 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 Daniels 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.

The famous legend goes that Dr. Pemberton was a pharmacist 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 -- 7-UP, for instance, originally contained lithium.)

In a steal of a transaction, perhaps rivaled only by the sale of Manhattan for $24 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 which 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).

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 buttermilk" -- 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 extra-tender, folks say. Mixed with ham drippings, some Southerners even make 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."

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 100-plus year Southern supremacy.

Even more importantly, Atlanta was spared a second burning.

Timothy C. Davis is a correspondent for Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor, and the food website, and Gastronomica, where a different version of this article first appeared.

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