With soft drinks as much a part of the junk-food pantheon as burgers and fries, it’s hard to imagine that physicians once promoted the drinks as cures for all sorts of ailments. In the late 1800s, druggists frequently served up root beer for overall well-being, ginger ale for nausea and Coca-Cola for headaches and hangovers.
Of course, the sodas of yesteryear were entirely different creatures from the ones we find on our supermarket shelves today. They were made from natural ingredients—the roots, leaves, flowers and barks of plants credited with health benefits. But pharmacists would not leave well enough alone. Many had received training as chemists, and they couldn’t resist the urge to experiment with different chemical combinations to produce artificial colorings and flavorings. By the early 1900s, synthesized flavorings were taking over the soda world.
Fortunately, the art of making your own soda from plants was not completely lost. For centuries, homemakers had been stirring up batches of “small beers”—low-alcohol, bubbly drinks—right alongside homebrewed beer. Small beers, such as root beer and ginger ale, allowed children and workers to enjoy the refreshing foaminess of beer without the drunkenness. During Prohibition, when the only way to acquire beer was to make it yourself, the art of small beers also went through a revival and, in some corners of the country, it stuck.
You can rekindle this tradition in your own kitchen. Here is a list of the equipment you will need to get started:
• Large soup or spaghetti pot
• Plastic soda bottles with screw-on caps and/or bail-top beer bottles, sterilized
Did you know? Old cookbooks are a rich source of soft drink recipes. An 1887 edition of the White House Cook Book, a compilation of recipes used by first ladies from Martha Washington through Julia Grant, includes hop beer, ginger beer, spruce beer and sassafras mead.
Note About Sassafras Root: Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) root, which is used in our root beer recipe, has been banned by the FDA as a flavoring in root beer because its oil contains about 80 percent safrole, a carcinogen (if used regularly, in large quantities, over a long period) and liver toxin. If you are concerned or plan to drink this beverage regularly, a safrole-free extract is available. Herbalists suggest pregnant women avoid sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.).
Kathryn Kingsbury is a freelance writer who enjoys turning her kitchen into a culinary chemistry lab.
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