Let Me Call You Sweet-Tart

If you’re lucky, you’ll find an old-fashioned soda fountain that will make you a cherry lime. It will make your summer day.

August 2005By Comments

IT WAS A TYPICAL TEXAS SUMMER MORNING—sun shining, birds singing, people melting—when I ran into a young friend at the farmers’ market. She was clutching that essential seasonal accessory, a cold canned drink, which happened to be one of the industry’s timid forays into fusion, Coca-Cola with lime. “A lime Coke!” I said. “I drank a few of those in my day.” She frowned prettily at me across the string beans and cream peas and said, “But…they just came out.”

Actually, little missy, that particular American potable evolved about a hundred years ago. Back in the Dork Ages, a lime Coke (or a cherry-vanilla Dr Pepper or a strawberry lemonade) didn’t come in a handy can. It was prepared on the spot at a soda fountain or a drive-in, with carbonated water and flavored syrup. Comparing the lime Coke of today with the sublime Coke I recall from, say, 1965 is like equating beef jerky with pit barbecue.

Whew! It’s thirsty work standing on a soapbox! And to be honest, the lime Coke doesn’t even top my list of favorite beverages (alcohol-free division). The soft drink with which I’ve had a lifelong affaire de coeur—and taste buds—is the cherry lime, a blend of cherry syrup, fizzy water, and fresh lime juice. It’s sweet and tart and utterly ambrosial, and it’s disappearing from Texas.

The cherry lime evolved from the gin rickey, an early highball supposedly named after Joe Rickey, a Washington lobbyist in the late 1890’s who became the nation’s first major importer of limes. The drink was an instant hit, and various bottlers promptly came up with a soft version for teetotalers and tots, all under the generic label “rickey.” By the twenties, when a gleaming chrome-and-tile soda fountain was as indispensable to a town as a post office, the cherry lime was as common as a Starbucks latte is today.

 If properly made, a cherry lime is unusual among soft drinks in that it is not only sweet and flavorful but also thirst quenching. These attributes make it ideal for summertime refreshment and explain why, like Brooklyn’s egg cream, such a retro potion retains a loyal following despite its elusive nature. In particular, the cherry lime keeps hanging on in West Texas and the Panhandle. I can think of several reasons why: Maybe workingmen such as cowboys and roughnecks, who always need water and want sugar, have kept the drink popular; the cheerful pink-and-green color combo has always contrasted pleasantly with the sepia landscape; and tradition surely plays a part (I’m a third-generation cherry-limer). For us baby boomers, there was also the nutritional benefit. Just as sailors in the eighteenth century drank lime juice to prevent scurvy on long sea voyages, so Panhandle kids during the fifties and sixties depended on cherry limes to keep them healthy and hap—hahahahaha. Sorry, just couldn’t keep that up.

I’m of an age at which I can claim friends who are former soda jerks. One is my colleague Gary Cartwright, who, before becoming a famous writer and general rapscallion, earned pin money at Terry Brothers’ Drug Store, in Arlington. “If I had a dime for every cherry lime I made, I’d be in jail for fraud,” he says. “They only cost a nickel! As I recall, you filled a small Coke glass with ice, added a squirt of plain syrup and a squirt of cherry, filled it with carbonated water, and then squeezed in half a fresh lime.” That was back in the late forties, when Gary was a teenager, and the formula hasn’t changed a whit. My friend Hope Rodriguez still recites the same recipe, which she prepared hundreds of times at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Austin 48 years ago. But at home, her family devised an inexpensive cherry-lime knockoff: “We mixed cherry Kool-Aid with fresh lime juice and extra sugar. I was the third of ten kids, so we had to make every penny count.”

When I was growing up in Pampa, the parched of throat could find a cherry lime at every burger joint, roadhouse, and cafe. My hometown is still, by modern standards, a cherry-lime stronghold. The best-ever purveyor: Jay’s Drive-Inn. The employees have always been easygoing, efficient women who negotiate the tiny shack with a smooth choreography that suggests years of working around other bodies (and vats of hot grease). Almost everything on the menu is “frad”—burritos, hot dogs, jalapeños—except for the ice cream and drinks. For close to half a century, Jay’s has set the bar for the cherry lime. For one thing, its mixologists distinguish between the cherry lime and the cherry limeade: The former is carbonated, the latter is not. For another, they don’t add a maraschino cherry, for which I thank them. I confess a deep and abiding scorn for the maraschino cherry, which not only tastes like kiddie cough syrup but also reminds me of fruit cocktail, a fallback insta-salad my generation faced at dinner at least once a week. (A typical can contained only two cherry halves, sparking fights in any family with three or more kids.) The “m” cherry is just one reason I disdain the slapdash cherry lime prepared at Sonic, the only major fast-foodery in Texas that boasts the drink on its menu. Sonic’s ersatz version also calls for Sprite and grenadine. (Bear in mind, the chain is headquartered in Oklahoma.) I assure you, though, that the servers at many small-town Dairy Queens or mom-and-pop joints remember the cherry lime. Even if it’s not listed, ask—you just might get lucky.

Polling friends and colleagues for this story, I was amazed at how many had never had—or even heard of—a cherry lime. Inevitably these folks are city slickers, whose more sophisticated environs gave them access to an impressive assortment of ready-made drinks. But no manufacturer has ever successfully bottled or canned the cherry lime. Few have tried and one has frozen: Pepsi once tested a cherry-lime version of Slice; IBC, of root beer fame, sells cherry lime in a six-pack, but it’s severely undercitrus’d; and in the seventies 7-Eleven offered the sweet-and-sour blend in a pretty darn decent tasting Slurpee.

At times, of course—church picnics, family reunions, road trips—bottled drinks are a necessity. So let’s raise a glass to a few of our state’s favorite soda pops. Consider Dr Pepper, which was invented in Waco in 1885 and thus ranks as Texas’s grand old brand. When I was little, kids thought Dr Pepper, with its cola-meets-fruit taste, contained prune juice (an urban legend that persists to this day). My friend Liz Aston had a more original theory while growing up in Angleton: “We all thought Dr Pepper tasted like what ants would taste like.” What did Liz and I know? Today Dr Pepper is the nation’s seventh-best-selling soft drink, with half a billion cases swigged in 2004. Liz is, however, a proponent of another venerable Texas beverage: Big Red, which was also invented in Waco, although a mere 68 years ago. Big Red is a fixture at Juneteenth celebrations and backyard barbecues and has a taste that defies description: Cherry? Strawberry? Liquefied Bazooka? “Once we got into surfing, Big Red was the drink of choice,” Liz says. “I think that because it was so candylike, it went well with the salt water. I still want Big Red every time I go to the beach.”

Many of Texas’s indie soft drinks quickly hit hard times, but one survivor is Delaware Punch, which dates back to 1913, when its secret formula included such then-exotic juices as pineapple and passion fruit. The origin of the name is a mystery, as it was invented in San Antonio. (Then again, Texas Punch was bottled in Pennsylvania. Perhaps the pop is always pinker in the other state.) Lovers of grape-flavored soda had bunches to pick from, but Grapette was the coolest, and not just because it actually tasted like grape juice. It was famous for its artsy bottles; one featured multicolored polka dots, and another had a raised “twisted” pattern that made it recognizable by feel when a thirsty patron was attempting to remove a bottle from one of those giant floor coolers full of arm-numbing slush. (Note to the nostalgic: Plant a Texas mountain laurel in your yard. The blossoms smell a lot like Grapette.) And does anyone else remember Pommac? It was a sparkling apple-flavored drink—Swedish, believe it or not—that enjoyed a brief Texas fling in the sixties. By then most of the state’s original brands—such as San Antonio’s fruit-flavored Hippo sodas, so called because they were extrabig (sixteen ounces) and touted the city’s zoo—had fizzled out, left flat by the likes of Coca-Cola and other beverage behemoths.

And if you ask me, little missy, most of them weren’t worth a sip. Give me a cherry lime any day. May it live on in Pampa and Tahoka, Conway and Odessa and other points west. I’ll drink ’em as long as I can find ’em—just as I have since I was Nehi to a grasshopper.

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