The historic Smitty’s Market in Lockhart opens earlier than you’d probably expect a barbecue joint to begin serving. At seven each morning (two hours later on Sunday), the smoked beef sausages have adequately plumped inside the old brick pits, and customers can choose an original or a jalapeño link. A few years back I ambled up to the counter around nine in the morning, looking for a link of each for breakfast. The chairs were still up on the tables from the night before.
An employee was surprised to find me in the dining room and wanted to know if I needed a drink. “Coffee?” I asked, while unscrewing the top from a bottle of hot sauce. “Sorry,” she said, shaking her head. Almost instinctively, I asked “How about a Dr Pepper?” She rang me up for one, and I cracked the can open, releasing the sweet perfume of those 23 flavors.
Dr Pepper is a natural complement to salty smoked meats, so it tasted predictably good between bites of fatty sausages, but there was something else stirring in my taste memories. Those first few sips released a long-forgotten sentiment about having the beloved drink for breakfast during my childhood, when it was part of a family Christmas tradition.
Under the tree every Christmas morning at my childhood home in Wooster, Ohio, were three cases of unwrapped pop. I’ll call it pop here, because that’s what I called fizzy sweet drinks back then. In Ohio you drink not soda or soda pop, but pop. My brother David demanded Mountain Dew, my sister Cynthia preferred Sprite, and I always asked for Dr Pepper. Our mother, Judy, who raised us on her own, obliged every Christmas, but not much more often than that. Name-brand pop was a special occasion, so we’d waste no time cracking one open straight from the case, still warm, and savoring it while we opened our gifts.
I say that name-brand pop was a special occasion at our house not because my mom was a health freak, but because we were poor. The type of poor where we split our own wood for the two fireplaces that heated the house. Turning on the furnace to burn expensive fuel oil was a last resort on nights when it got below freezing. For years after our washer and dryer broke, we drove to my grandparents’ house on Sunday to do laundry. Our generic cereal came in a plastic bag without a box. We were only allowed to use half the sugar that the Kool-Aid pack recommended.
When there was pop in the house, it was generic, specifically the Shurfine brand sold at the now closed Hawkins Market. My favorite flavor was black cherry, because it tasted the closest to a Dr Pepper (Hawkins didn’t offer the Dr. Fine flavor back then), but of course it wasn’t the same. My mom knew that, which is why Shurfine pop didn’t make its way under the Christmas tree, but her reason to make Dr Pepper a Christmas tradition was also one of practicality. She told me recently, “That was something you could enjoy, and I could buy it with food stamps.”
I don’t remember the first time I had a Dr Pepper, but I know when my mom had her first bottle. She told us many times as kids about a trip to Texas, where she’d discovered the new elixir. I hadn’t talked to her about it in years until I called her for this story.
It was 1960, and the interstate highway system was still under construction when twelve-year-old Judy got in the car with her parents to make the long drive to Texas. Her brother-in-law was stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen, and her sister had just had a son, my grandparents’ first grandchild. When they arrived in Killeen, the family met up at a restaurant. Mom doesn’t remember the food, but the Dr Pepper she ordered made an impression.
When she saw the unfamiliar drink featured on the menu, she felt compelled to give it a try. It arrived in a bottle with a glass, and was better than any Coke she had tasted. For the rest of the trip, she recalled, “Every time we could get it, we got it in Texas.” The memory lingered for years, which is why she told us the story so often. “I never had it again until years later, when the distribution was available in Ohio,” she said. In hindsight, the story was probably a reminder that my siblings and I should be grateful for the things we had as kids that she didn’t.
Now that I live in Texas, I take Dr Pepper’s ubiquity for granted. Restaurants here don’t seem to have the stifling Pepsi-only contracts I suffered through in Ohio. I’ve drunk so many along the barbecue trail that it’s impossible to count them. And I give Texas-style barbecue joints outside of Texas a mental demerit when they add the period after “Dr” on their menus.
To me Dr Pepper is more than a pop. It was aspirational when I was a kid, and even at that young age, before visiting the state was a possibility, Dr Pepper was a symbol of Texas. I always thought that if a thing I love came from such a place, I’d like to go there. I’m not saying I moved here twenty years ago because of Dr Pepper, but it was a beacon of familiarity. That shiny red can greeted me everywhere when this state was still new and unfamiliar to me. When I first moved to Dallas, I shopped (and still do) at a Kroger with a massive, illuminated Dr Pepper clock outside. The site once housed the original Dr Pepper headquarters, and the sign was preserved after the building was demolished in 1997. As a newcomer, I didn’t understand at first why the 10, 2, and 4 were highlighted, but I knew my grocery trips wouldn’t be the same without it.
I guess you could say I’m a Pepper. I’ve had a cold glass mixed the old-fashioned way at the counter inside the Dr Pepper museum in Waco, where the drink was created in 1885. I’ve downed one while watching minor league baseball at Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco. My wife and children turn up their noses when I dump a packet of salted peanuts into a bottle of Dr Pepper as a road snack (protein and caffeine together with no messy hands!). I even took a potentially ill-advised photo of an empty can inside a public restroom in Tokyo because I hadn’t seen one in Japan until then, and I missed Dr Pepper, though not enough to take more than a photo.
Even after all those Dr Peppers, the unique aroma and taste is still special. I don’t think I’d much care if they ever revealed those 23 flavors, because it’s the combination of them that makes Dr Pepper better than any knockoffs who didn’t bother to get a degree, or the ones who are sure they bring the thunder. I don’t even care what Dr. Fine and his or her excessive punctuation tastes like.
On that morning in Lockhart, after I sat down in the empty Smitty’s dining room with my breakfast, I popped the lid on my Dr Pepper and took a sip. For a moment, I was ten years old again, sitting next to the Christmas tree with Mom and Cynthia and David. I thought about how far I’d come, and I felt thankful.