If someone told you about a bar openly serving cocaine over the counter, chances are you wouldn't think soda jerks and pop. However, writer and bartender Darcy O'Neil, in his book on soda fountains, Fix the Pumps, tells the story of pharmacists making "narc-tails" full of "cocaine, strychnine, cannabis, morphine, opium, heroine, and other neurochemicals."
That was just a start. It seems that long before Prohibition, the soda counter had started to nudge out saloons, turning the cocktail into an evening tipple instead of a morning drink, since waking "brain" workers like accountants, politicians, and lawyers preferred the cheaper, druggist-dispensed "nerviness." Cocktails became a way to wind down, creating a dangerous cycle for addicts.
The soda fountain wasn't just a bed of junkies; it was a place of great creativity. Pharma-bartenders would conjure up drinks using carbonation, acidulants, cream, eggs, extracts, and essences, and O'Neil's book is peppered with recipes. As O'Neil points out, there was even crossover between bartenders and soda jerks when it came to some drinks, such as the famous New Orleans Ramos Gin Fizz.
The creativity behind the fountain was not just stirred and shaken. Soda jerks developed their own discourse behind the counter, and the name of the book itself is a soda-jerk euphemism for checking out a buxom woman. As in, "I'm going to fix the pumps." Other creative terms used by soda jerks include "shake one in the hay" for a strawberry milkshake and "dough well done with cow to cover" for bread and butter.
Eventually narcotics were found to be dangerous, and even well-known soda brands were forced to change their formulas. This didn't change American's thirst for sodas, milkshakes, and phosphates though. With the growing popularity of the soda fountain, pharmacists handed over their apron to assistants, giving us the more enduring image of the soda jerk—teenage boys in white uniforms. And during Prohibition, bartenders took up the siphon, since they were more experienced with crowds and out of work.
MORE ON COCKTAIL HISTORY:
Wayne Curtis: Who Invented the Cocktail?
Derek Brown: Consider the Cups
Derek Brown: Be a Drink Historian
In 1933, bartenders were back to work and back to the saloon. While this likely cut into the soda fountain business, it wasn't over yet. The real deathblow to the soda fountain seems to have been the growth of the bottled soda industry. Suddenly you could get sodas anywhere, and still can—although a far cry from what the industry had been.
Besides history and lore, Fix the Pumps is full of fascinating scientific information. O'Neil is especially deft in breaking down different chemicals used behind the soda counter, such as soda acidulants. Acid phosphates, for example, were used as stand-ins for citrus, which was expensive and perishable.
The book is also full of new tricks for bartenders, though cocaine is no longer part of the bartender's arsenal. Correction, cocaine is no longer legally part of the bartender's arsenal (and neither should it be otherwise). You can purchase the book along with chemicals such as acid phosphate here.
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