Wednesday, February 16, 2011

America's favorite temperance drink

I've been listening to the latest episode of This American Life, in which Ira Glass & Co. claim to have found the secret recipe for Coca-Cola.

I don't drink the stuff, but I'm fascinated by the history and iconography of this enduring cultural artifact. Much of the mythology of Coke revolves around Coca-Cola's inventor, druggist John Pemberton. Like many Confederate veterans Pemberton became addicted to morphine -- the drug of choice for treating wounded soldiers. After the war he began experimenting with a concoction that contained extract from coca leaves, as in cocaine. The hope was that it would help wean addicts off of their dependence on morphine. His first product was a wine containing caffeine, and yes, cocaine. Must have been quite the energy drink! When temperance mania hit Atlanta; Pemberton realized he needed to adapt to the changing social mores. He removed the alcohol from his beverage, tinkered some more and -- voila! -- the primitive version of Coca-Cola was born. It's his recipe that Ira Glass attempts to reproduce on this week's show.

Interestingly enough; coca leaves are still used in the official formula, but not before they're de-cocainized at a plant in New Jersey. That makes the Coca-Cola Company one of the biggest importers of a Schedule II controlled substance in the country!

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