A lot of what happens around here is the result of serendipity. Maybe that’s lack of discipline or maybe it’s just following everything through to its logical conclusion. The latest adventure began with my SodaStream, one of those appliances that carbonate water cheaply (as opposed to using a seltzer bottle, where each CO2 charger costs about 50 cents – a SodaStream “carbonator” that will charge 60 liters costs $15 to refill. You can find 2-liter bottles of store-bought soda water for about a buck, but that’s still twice as expensive). I like plain soda water, but eventually curiosity led me to making my own syrups.
My first virtual stop was at Homemade Dessert Recipes, where a dessert fork in the road took me to Soda Recipes. There I learned how to make a cherry phosphate, the beverage of my adolescent dreams once served up fresh at the fountain of Frasher’s Rexall Drug Store in Deshler, Ohio. Ah, sweet memories. You just don’t see cherry phosphate or anything even like it anymore. Maybe that’s because the acid phosphate used in fountain drinks, like almost anything that tastes good, has been found to have negative impact on your health, specifically because phosphates remove calcium from bone tissue. That’s especially bad if you have osteoporosis (which, strangely, I do – don’t ask, I think I got it from a toilet seat). As a result, acid phosphate has been replaced by citric acid in most sodas.
A link from that site led me to Prairie Moon, where you can but inexpensive syrups to make amaretto, black cherry, fuzzy peach – you name it. Just about anything your heart desires. Of course, that is of little satisfaction to a cook because we want to make our own – right?
Eventually, my quest led me to Mix This!, the website of Canadian bartender/chemist extraordinaire, Darcy O’Neil. Mr. O’Neil’s book, Fix the Pumps, was recently featured in Francis Lam’s Salon article on ginger ale as well, so the triangulation coordinates were firmly established. Oh, and lookee here!, you can buy acid phosphate there as well - if you have convinced yourself that just “a little bit” won’t hurt your bones if you want that old-fashioned taste. He had a special deal where you could throw in a bottle of Lactart (lactic acid, a unique sour flavor, distinct from the citric acid associated with lemons and limes. Yes, it is in fermented pickle juice) as well and save a few bucks, so I went for that. A week or so later, slowed by blizzards and US Customs, my package arrived.
By now, you probably understand that every good story has a setback or two before it ultimately plows on to redemption, and this one is no different. I opened my package of concoctions and sorcery spells only to find shards of broken blue glass. It had been expertly wrapped, but that was no match for the hormones postal workers excrete when the word “Fragile” is flashed before their eyes. The bottle of Lactart had survived, but the acid phosphate had run out and glued together the pages of the book. I sent an email to Mr. O’Neil, who responded within minutes and said the postal insurance would cover it. That would take some time, however, and my plans for making phosphates on my SodaStream had to be put on hold.
So, meanwhile, I went back to Mr. Computer and the Google Oracle and awaited further instructions. They taught me that “Seltzer,” as in “Seltzer Water,” was derived from “Selters,” a village in Limburg-Weilburg, Hesse, Germany famous for its naturally carbonated water. It was the ancient Romans who first ended up there about 50 B.C and called the carbonated springs “aqua saltare” or “dancing waters.” The Germans dropped the “aqua” and named their town accordingly. If you’re ever there in November, be sure to attend the lantern move and potato festival!
Then, with visions of dancing waters and moving lanterns pushing me ever onward, I went to the familiar territory of Khymos, not for hydrocolloids this time, but for mineral water formulations. Martin Lersch has not only analyzed the concentrations of calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfates, chlorides, and bicarbonates in most popular mineral waters, he has included a spreadsheet in which you can input the quantities of these in your tap water (available from your water utility, usually online) and calculate the amounts of salts you need to add to synthesize them! The order of addition does matter (Potassium and sodium salts should be added first, then calcium and magnesium chlorides, and finally metals (zinc, manganese, aluminum) and heavier carbonates and sulphates) or the water may become cloudy.
Then the New York Times published Cocktails with a Twist: Zing but No Alcohol – yes, if you can make it there, you can make it in Carrboro! Kumquat-fennel, yuzu and rose spritz, chamomile-grapefruit, and artisanal (have you ever noticed how that breaks apart into “art is anal”?) syrups from P&H Soda Co. in Brooklyn. Move over, Coca-Cola, the soft drink universe is expanding.
Yes, then there is coke. Sister Ruth was the first to inform me that Ira Glass’s Original Coca-Cola recipe story had crashed the website for This American Life. It caused an equal commotion in Atlanta, GA, where the Journal-Constitution had originally published the formula back in 1979 (and Darcy O’Neil had it on his Art of Drink website all along).
And finally, one day, my package from Canada showed up. I shook it on the way back to my apartment and heard the liquid gurgle, so I knew it had arrived safely this time. The acid phosphate was double bubble-wrapped and in a much more substantial bottle, far exceeding the humble demolition techniques employed at the post office. The book told me all about elixirs, tinctures, and extracts and how to make them – if you have the equipment. Some oils will not extract into water, but 190-proof grain alcohol is available in NC and glycerin may also work. I’m sure a lot of people have made their own vanilla extract (hint: you can buy 10 vanilla beans at Costco for 10 bucks) and the process takes time, but is simple. Some methods use percolation, and an old-fashioned coffee percolator will work just fine for that. Many avenues to explore.
And then there was a surprise in the box! A vial containing 100 taste strips! You’ve probably heard of tasters and supertasters, and probably can even sing along with They Might Be Giants on “John Lee Supertaster”:
Nothing tastes the same (nothing tastes the same)
To a Supertaster (Supertaster)
When he tastes a pear (tastes a pear)
It's like a hundred pears (it's like a million pears)
You may have wondered if you are a supertaster yourself and it’s pretty easy to tell. Just put some blue dye on your tongue and observe the number of fungiform papillae. If there are lots of them and they are small and closely packed together, you just might be a supertaster. Or you could take the BBC quiz and find out there. The chances are about 1 in 4 if you’re of European descent, slightly higher if you’re European or African descent. Women are more likely to be supertasters. Of course, if you’re a foodie, you’ll want to keep quiet about it if you’re not! The taste strips contain a bitter substance (Phenylthiocarbamide or “PTC”) that supertasters will detect immediately (and strongly) while it will be weaker and slower with an ordinary taster. A “tasteless” person won’t taste it at all, but we can recognize them immediately, on sight, by what they’re wearing anyway. Right?
In their honor, we’ll exit with Wild Man Fischer taunting them with his big hit, “The Taster (Fancy Version)”: