Friday, September 28, 2012

You can tell Coke from Pepsi, but can you tell what's in it?


How good are you at guessing ingredients? Can you tell what’s flavoring your soup or what gave that spice rub its zing?

If you’re like most people, you’re pretty confident you can identify flavors in your food and drink. So, you tell me: what gives the most popular soft drink the world has ever known its distinctive taste?

I’m referring, of course, to Coke—Coca-Cola, to use its official name. Almost everyone claims to be able to tell Coke from Pepsi, but can you isolate just what it is that gives it that unique flavor? Despite the fact that, according to recent statistics, somewhere on the order of 13,000 eight-ounce servings are consumed every second of every day—that translates to approximately 1.2 billion servings each day—I bet that very few of you can tell me what’s in the stuff.

Most people know that the “Coca” in its name comes from the South American coca plant, the same plant that, with the help of a series of complicated chemical processes, gives us cocaine. They’re right, but that tidbit doesn’t help you answer my question about today’s soda. 

Yes, it was the leaves of the coca plant that the Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton used when he concocted the earliest version of the drink back in the 1880’s, known then as Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. He was trying to cash in on some of the success of the popular drink of the day: Vin Mariani, a French medicinal tonic made from Bordeaux wine treated with coca leaves and enjoyed by the likes of Queen Victoria, Thomas Edison, Ulysses S. Grant, and Popes Leo XIII and Pius X. Both Vin Mariani and Pemberton’s French Wine Coca claimed to cure almost anything that ailed you, from constipation to neurasthenia, exhaustion to impotence. And maybe they did. The other ingredients Pemberton incorporated into his French Wine Coca were the caffeine-containing kola nut from the rainforests of Africa and the damiana shrub native to Texas and Mexico where the leaves had long been steeped and drunk as an aphrodisiac. So maybe between the coca, the kola, and the damiana, that French Wine Coca really could cure what ailed you—or at least wake you up and get you feeling in the mood.

 But how did Pemberton’s wine turn into our soda?

When Atlanta County prohibited alcohol in 1885, Dr. Pemberton remained undaunted and cleverly replaced the wine in his French Wine Coca with carbonated water (then called soda water) and sugar syrup. He must have known that you’re unlikely to lose money if you appeal to our nation’s sweet tooth.

So, are you any closer to identifying the flavors in today’s Coke? I don’t think so. Yes, it’s still sweet and carbonated and yes, it’s still flavored with coca leaves (entirely cocaine-free) and still get its caffeine from kola nuts (I don’t know whether the formula still includes damiana). But the rest?


For the longest time the formula was as strictly guarded as the gold at Fort Knox or Colonel Sanders’ “original recipe” of 11 herbs and spices. The original copy was kept in a vault in an Atlanta bank for 86 years until it was transferred to a new vault which is currently on display at the Coca-Cola museum in downtown Atlanta. Legend holds that only two executives know the formula at any one time, each one knowing only half.

In reality, the formula was discovered in 1979 and published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

1 oz caffeine citrate
3 oz citric acid
1 oz vanilla extract
1 quart lime juice
2.5 oz “flavoring” (Merchandise 7X) (See below)
30 lb sugar
4 oz fluid extract of coca leaves
2.5 gallons water
caramel sufficient to give color

“Flavoring (Merchandise 7X)”: (Note that quantities weren’t specified)
1 quart alcohol
80 oil orange
40 oil cinnamon
120 oil lemon
20 oil coriander
40 oil nutmeg
40 oil neroli

With only a few changes, this is still more or less the recipe for Coke. So, now you know what you’re tasting when you drink your share of the 1.2 billion servings of Coke downed every day. Vanilla, cinnamon, citrus, spices, and a whole lot of sugar—or, since 1985, high fructose corn syrup.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Apples, Honey, and Beets?

In my experience, people either love beets or they hate them. Is anyone indifferent to them? Some people just can’t get past their color. Who wants to cook something that dyes your hands that particular shade of lurid magenta? And then there’s the matter of their velvety unctuousness (shared, when you think about it, by another food even more capable of triggering spasms of primal disgust: black pudding, aka blood sausage).

I’m one of the people who love beets but I have to admit that my love wasn’t of the love-at-first-sight variety. No, it was acquired over the years and I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t the recipes I grew up with that converted me. Back then, beets meant one thing. Well, maybe two. Borscht—whether hot and meaty or cold and served with sour cream—and pickled beets. Neither, I’m sorry to say, was I ever happy to see on the dinner table.

It was when I grew up and started eating out on my own that I discovered beet salad. All of a sudden it seemed every restaurant I went to had an arugula or watercress, roasted beet, and goat cheese salad on the menu. At last one night I succumbed. I ordered the salad featuring my old nemesis, the beet, cubed up and decked out in a lemony, vinagery, or mustardy dressing. Nothing had prepared me for the magic that results when the velvety suaveness of the beet is accompanied by the bracing tartness of lemon or vinegar, the tanginess of the goat cheese, all served atop a bed of peppery greens. (In truth, the cold borschts and pickled beets of my childhood should have prepared me—after all they’ve got more than their fair share of lemon juice and vinegar—but somehow I was either too young or too rebellious to appreciate that maybe my mother and grandmother knew a thing or two that I didn’t.)

So now to my point.

Sunday, as many of you know, marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year and, as many of you also know, the holiday is celebrated with sweet foods to symbolize a sweet new year. Apples and honey feature large. But, if you’ve read other posts of mine—like the one I wrote last Rosh Hashanah on honey, for instance—you’ll know that I’m no big fan of sweet, so providing a traditional Rosh Hashanah dinner has always presented a challenge to me.

This year, though, I came across something that stopped me in my tracks. Am I the only one who didn’t know that beets are just as traditional to eat on Rosh Hashanah as honey? When I read that according to a Talmudic rabbi, “at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates,” I felt vindicated. Gourds, fenugreek, leeks, and beets are all fine by me (dates not so much). And since I already had a big bunch of beets in the vegetable drawer of the fridge, I was all set.

Before I started cooking, though, I started wondering why the rabbi had listed those particular foods. Fenugreek? When was the last time you felt like celebrating with fenugreek? Turns out that the Hebrew name for fenugreek is rubia which sounds a lot like yirbu (at least according to the rabbi) which means “increase” which is what one prays for at the start of the year: more. More merits. More children. More money. By the same logic, beets, which in Hebrew are silka, reminded the rabbi of siluk, which means “removal,” as in the removal of our enemies. Hmmm. So, if I eat beets, I’m praying for the removal of my enemies?

Even without the tenuous connection between its Hebrew name and the demise of my enemies, I’d still rather serve beets than honey and this year, I’ll thus be honoring both my taste buds and tradition by serving up a beet salad, a lovely Moroccan one I came across in the New York Times some years ago in an article by the wonderful cookbook writer Joan Nathan. Lemony, garlicky, and cuminy, it’s the perfect side dish for those of you who want something traditional that’s also got a whole lot of flavor other than simply sweet.

Joan Nathan’s Moroccan Beet Salad
6-8 medium beets
Juice of 1 lemon (or more)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin (or more)
Salt and pepper
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ cup diced fresh parsley
Simmer the beets in water until fork tender, about 45 minutes. Cool, peel, and cut into bite-sized pieces. Place in a serving bowl.
Stir together the lemon juice, garlic, cumin, and salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil & taste for seasoning. Toss with the beets and let sit for a few hours. Just before serving, sprinkle with parsley.