Monday, August 24, 2009

the trouble with soda pop

Soda pop is the most disgusting thing on the face of the planet. And I love it. Water is a pain in the ass to drink. Soda pop is a party that goes down your gullet gleefully at full throttle. Water is, I don't know, so, hmmm, so medieval. Modernity truly began when pop was created. Back in the good old days a bottle of pop was a treat to be enjoyed on a special occasion. A soda was something one had when they came to town on the weekend. I am old enough to have fond memories of my mother taking me to downtown Greensboro where a soda fountain still operated in an old drug store on Elm Street. I would climb up on one of the battered leather cushioned stools at the ancient gilded counter and watch as an elderly pharmacist in his drab pharmacist's smock mixed a spoonful of cola syrup with ice cubes in a tall chilled glass and then poured frothing soda from the elaborate brass fountain spigot over the top. I think it was the quaint antiquity of the process that captivated me even at that early age. I could have been no older than twenty or twenty-one. I would spin on my stool and in a flash suck down my soda, then mother and I would go shopping for bloomers.

But coca-cola would never have become king cola and all of the ensuing lesser aristocracy of the soda world would never have come into being if having a soda had remained relegated to the domain of the special treat. Soda set about conquering the globe. Today what was once an rare indulgence has become a daily ritual for soda addicts the world over. We just can't get enough. Soda pop is the number one consumed product in the United States. Perhaps this would not be such a bad thing if not for all of the sugar packed into pop. Soda pop is fast being identified as the one of the culprits of the exploding obesity epidemic sweepin the nation and reliable information points to the fact that if the average soda drinker were to cut the evil nectar from his or her diet within a year they would be ten pounds lighter. Fuck that, I'll take the ten. Actually no, I'll save my ten for fried chicken and burritos.

Bag it, give me twenty....twenty-five...thirty...

The advent of High Fructose Corn Syrup in the seventies and eighties has not helped matters. For a myriad of reasons soda bottlers flocked to it. I did a little reading up on our corn friend and suffice to say it's a pretty complicated business involving murky vats of chemicals, verdant spawning bacteria, and shadowy agri-empires like Archer Daniels Midland (these are the guys who usually underwrite conservative talk shows and have crowned themselves "supermarket to the world"). Despite a recent ad campaign to answer the negative backlash that shows young, healthy, and most importantly, skinny, couples frolicking about in bucolic settings casually chatting about High Fructose Corn Syrup, it just ain't so. Suffice to say this stuff might as well be milk from the devil's tit. Somewhere in the commandments or Leviticus, God should have forbidden its use. He didn't. He fucked up. What's its appeal? It's cheaper than sugar; it transports easier (tankers are criss-crossing the nation as I write); and it extends the shelf life of everything from twinkies to Heinz Ketchup into the next millenium. The shit even creeps up in Oro-wheat's line of "whole grain" breads (the bastards). It is ubiquitous. In 1980 America used three million small tons of HFCS (not sure what a small ton is, I think I will start using this terminology when referring to my own personal weight), but by 1995 that amount had increased to eight million small tons consumed a year. Today we eat more High Fructose Corn Syrup than good old fashioned sugar. Listen when scientist feed this shit to rats they explode into corpulent jackie gleasonesque rodents who expire prematurely from raging diabetes.

Where did this all begin??!!

Soda pop, known as a soft drink to differentiate itself from hard drinks which contain alcohol (let's give a big cheer to these also) is a relatively new invention, but humankind's collective taste for sweet flavorful beverage is as old as, well, pooping. Beverage scholars and soda historians point to the ancient near east as one possible origin of the soft drink where found documents show that early towel heads mixed dates with piss water to share with their nomadic ass buddies on the Afghan steppes. Interestingly enough there are also parallels in the early Christian world where some Coptic records of gnosticism seem to open the door to the possibility that Jesus could also turn water not only into wine but also into what today we call Mountain Dew.

The history of soda is actually quite fascinating and to the young scholars out there who I am sure read this journal let me say that it is a field of academics that offers uncharted vistas for intellectual exploration and an inviting niche of study that could last a lifetime burrowed away in some crap ass community college basement.

Check it: as early as the seventeenth century Parisian street vendors were hawking a drink flavored with lemonade and honey that they also marketed as perfume when the mid- summer stench of proto-euro trash hair pit and ass became unbearable, but it wasn't until the creation of carbonated water by Jason Priestly (yes, in fact distant ancestor of acclaimed brilliant television star of same name) in 1767 that the seeds of the pop revolution were sewn. Priestly, in his ground breaking treatise "I impregnated water with fixed air", was an overnight sensation not only with the scientific community but with the salon lounging libertine crowd as well for his racy passages of elemental intercourse. In the words of this long rambling philosophical and scientific rumination on life and romance he also described how he first discovered that mixing water with carbon dioxide produced a drink pleasing to the taste. Alas his scientific acumen did not triumph over his more sullied urges for fame, fortune, and cooze. Priestly never again published in the academic journals of his day. His lab was destroyed by a band of vicious children in route to a belated crusade that would see them all raped and dismembered (of course at the time they didn't know that evidenced by the fact that eyewitnesses recount them singing joyous hymns as they smashed Priestly's apparatus). After the ruin, he frequented the theatre, lived in a chamber pot above a cat house, and took opium with hollow eyed chinamen. He died prematurely from asphyxiation when he slipped off of the rim of a vat of beer with a belt around his neck attached to the ceiling and his pants down to his shanks. They say he screamed out a whore's name just before his neck snapped and his eyeballs exploded out of his head and sank into the churning gyre of suds.

But I digress. History is a fascinating subject. The first soda fountains in the United States began to appear in the early 1800's mostly in pharmacies where, much like the pharmacist of my experience in Greensboro, chemists would experiment with mixing herbs and flavors with carbonated waters to titillate the tastes of their customers. They used such varied components as birch bark and dandelions, even an occasional mouse turd made its way into their concoctions with no ill effect. Perhaps soda would have remained a fixture of the chemist or the ice cream shop had it not been for inventive capitalists who devised a way to bottle the gaseous liquid. At the dawn of the twentieth century the first patent was issued for a glass bottle producing factory and the soda industry took off: within a few years production rose from 1400 bottles a day to 58,000. By the 1920's Americans were taking home six packs of soda and availing themselves of vending machines that sold soft drinks. John Dillinger endorsed Coca-Cola. World War Two actually arose over a dispute about soda pop. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq: soda. The great Society was not so much about civil rights as it was about one particular weekend when Lyndon Johnson drove his pickup truck down to colored town and handed out free bottles of coca-cola and menthol cigarettes. Of course, they didn't appreciate it. Who? You know who. The Blacks.

But where does that leave us? With trouble. Plain and simple. Sure, we can dream of a Utopian society where everyone is fat as shit and keeling over by age thirty of heart disease and diabetes; where cruel social conventions are turned on their heads and skinny people are harassed and beaten in the streets and yoga studios and cardio-gyms are firebombed; where happy rotund couples and their lard ass offspring picnic beside lakes of Dr. Pepper sprawling on filthy mattresses littered with chicken bones and crumpled chip bags, eschewing all forms of physical activities including self sufficient breathing; but can we realistically hope for such a day? You know, I can't really answer that question right now. In fact I see from my window that the mexican cleaning girls have arrived at the neighbor's house across the courtyard and it is time for me to remove my clothing so I must be going.....

Monday, August 10, 2009

Swine dining and the flea market tradition: an appreciation of sorts.

I am more partial to swine dining than I am to fine dining. And what I mean by swine dining goes beyond the obvious love of pig to encompass a whole way of eating: out of a trough in a mud poke. In a manner of speaking, philosophically. Fine dining requires getting gussied up in your Sunday best. In contrast, swine dining doesn't even necessarily demand pants. Swine dining is a way of life. I first came to discover my love of swine dining many years ago in the dusty corridors of the old Sedgefield Flea Market where vendors hawked corn dogs and gravy fries, root beers and cherry colas, or "colers" as it was pronounced, amidst stalls of bric-a-brac and farm equipment. To me swine dining equates with easy living. Easy living is something I sorely miss these days.

The Sedgefield Flea Market was out High Point Road on the way to Jamestown. It consisted of a single hangar like ramshackle concrete building which housed permanent vendor's stalls and a snack bar surrounded by weedy gravel parking lots where on the weekends cars and trucks amassed in lanes of concentric circles to showcase their wares. During the week when the market was closed and the gravel lots were empty and the solitary structure sat weathered white, solemn, silent; the property seemed vaguely menacing, if not downright haunted. But when the flea market was in session the grounds became carnival like with eager crowds of redneck folk shuffling to and fro sifting through a profundity of junk and cast off shit: the dust stirring above their magpie babble; a million wobbly transistor radios playing Charlie Daniels Band; the sputters and roars of revving lawn mower engines and power tools; the sundry hawkers celebrating their potions and tinctures; buskers picking at old guitars and bangoes; and permeating everything, the scent of crap food being fried to living hell in the greasy pit of the snack bar.

I loved coming to the flea market with my dad on Sunday mornings. He would hand me some money and we would go off in different directions, he in search of the plates, cups, and saucers that to this day still obsess him and I would go off to plunder from stacks of old comic books and records. In those days I was also constantly on the lookout for skin mags or any printed journal in which I might cadge a glimpse of tit or snatch. As my mother knelt in church across town praying for the damned soul of her only prized son, I was browsing through copies of True Detective or old worn issues of Easy Rider soaking up grainy images of kidnapped co-eds and skanky topless biker chicks. Satan, oh my sweet Satan.

The snack bar which operated in the front portion of the old hangar was the kind of place that my mother would pray to God to destroy. It was a filthy place. Even from my young eyes it was obvious that the proprietors held little regard for silly matters like sanitation standards and other such bourgeois nonsense. The kitchen itself was enclosed in a greasy shell of corrugated tin, dry wall, and rusted chicken wire. There was a couple of fryers and a grill and not much else. Refrigeration was frowned upon. The counter, little more than a shelf crowded with jars of relish, bright yellow mustard, and ketchup, was constructed of scrap plywood. A heavy jowled bad tempered man sat at the small window by the cash register and begrudgingly took orders. The menu was scrawled on pieces of torn cardboard taped to the grease splattered glass above his head I was partial to the corn dogs. The corn dog is a marvelous creation. It supplies us with the prehistoric satisfaction of eating our food from a stick. Why don't people put slices of hot dogs in corn bread? Because you can't eat a wedge of cornbread on a stick. After I got my corn dog and my root beer I would visit the fixins counter and slather yellow mustard generously up and down my dog.

Armed with sustenance I would embark into the labyrinth of stalls that were owned and operated by the more serious professional collector of crap...what they nowadays call antiques. A lot of these sellers had been in the building for years. The cars and campers outside of itinerant huskers presenting their goods on blankets spread over the coarse ground came and went, but the folks who rented space in the weather beaten building had built up fantastic cluttered idiosyncratic nests in which they had roosted every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for years. The stalls were really little more than chain link pens but most of them were carpeted and outfitted with all of the comforts of home. You might just as easily come upon a family watching television and having lunch as you would a display case of estate jewelry. I remember that lighting in general in the building was poor, but for the single row of bare bulbs that cast a feeble glow down the center aisles each vendor was left to fend for himself. Most of the stalls were illuminated by desk lamps or crooked floor lamps that could also simultaneously be had for a price (which would sometimes without warning plunge the intrepid shopper into darkness) . A few stalls were always cloaked in darkness, their stall gates always padlocked, their merchandise mere hollow shapes lost in the shadows. As I meditatively consumed my corn dog I would stroll along the aisles from one oasis of light and knickknackery to another, passing the shuttered shops in funerary silence. There were entire stalls devoted to soda bottles and bottle caps; old farm equipment and railroad souvenirs; there were stalls that dealt exclusively in coca-cola memorabilia; there were stalls that sold only dolls and depression era toys; only chinaware; only silver and gold; there were stalls that were lined with shelves like libraries and offered every poorly penned science fiction novel or western or harlequin romance ever published; there were stalls crammed with figurines and curios and garish commemorative plates from the Franklin Mint; there was a stall for every imaginable object that man had ever created, coveted, and cast aside. But that was the secret joy of the flea market and a resolute reaffirmation of the fundamental laws of physics: once it had been created, the object was borne into existence to stay. It might be cast off by one, but another would eventually come along and pick it up.

Sadly enough the old Sedgefield flea Market is no longer in operation, but there are other places that still carry on the noble business of circulating humankind's detritus from one hand to another, from one generation to the next. It is odd to think of our belongings outlasting us, but a good portion of them are sure to still be laying around long after you've been laid in your box and most probably someone either familiar or foreign will get their hands on them. And perhaps they will say something like, "If only he hadn't eaten so many corn dogs he might still be around to enjoy all of these trinkets."