food humorfood humor Eat, Drink and Really Be Merry
Root Beer: Have Some, My Dear
by Marjorie Dorfman
page 2

root beerBy this time, many pharmacies had soda fountains to dispense the healthful carbonated water, and soon Charles began to add Hires Herb Tea to it, which totally altered its flavor and removed the fermentation step of the process. Ingredients still had to be boiled and strained, however, before they could be added to the sweetened water. So Charles put his little gray cells to work and invented a new and improved liquid version that could be fermented at home once water and yeast were added, or it could be added directly to the sweetened carbonated water. This liquid extract was first advertised in an 1884 issue of Harper’s Weekly. A shrewd businessman and promoter, Mr. Hires gave out many free samples for people to try. On his side quite by accident were the mounting forces of the American Temperance Movement. Housewives who weren’t breaking up saloons and opposing legislators with hatchets stayed home to brew this wonderful new drink that was both convenient and very tasty.

root beerThe next step along the star-studded, carbonated way was to bottle finished root beer, and make people’s lives easier by removing the need to do any work at all to produce the drink at home. (This was the beginning of the non-work ethic in America, which persists somewhere to this day.) In 1893, The Crystal Bottling Company began bottling Hires Root Beer and distributing it to local retailers. Calling it a beer instead of a tea made it more appealing to the working classes and marketing it as such was a big factor in its success. It also contained no caffeine and being a pharmacist, Charles promoted his product as being healthy as well as delicious. With its slightly bitter herbal taste, even today every root beer has a slightly medicinal flavor.

One ingredient from the old days, however, is missing. Sassafras which contains safrole has been determined a carcinogen by the Federal Drug Administration It has been banned since 1960, and sassafras bark since 1976. If food chemists hadn’t been able to come up with comparable artificial sassafras flavoring in the 1960s, root beer might have died out because sassafras was the main ingredient in all root beers. Supposedly, tobacco is a tame carcinogen compared to toxic safrole. Purists claim that the artificial flavor is nowhere near the same as the original and they complain that many modern root beers rely too heavily on wintergreen, anise, cloves, lemon oil and orange oil. Ultimately, if it tastes bad that’s one thing, but if it tastes good, who cares?

All in all, root beer remains one of the most popular drinks in America today. Its mystique will never really be unveiled, as much of the truth is lost to the mists of time. Foamy, frothy, spicy and sassy, it is unlikely that its popularity will ever fade from American culture. It is also used in ways completely unexpected; consider the recipe for Root Beer bread that I have included at the bottom of this article. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, or better yet, swallow it and enjoy. Let’s make a toast. Here’s to your health and in the case of root beer, I mean it this time.

Viva Root Beer!

root beer
Root Beer Bread
(Recipe courtesy of The Root Beer Book by Laura Quarantiello)

1 quart root beer
1/2 cup lard or shortening
2 packages of yeast, dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water
1 tablespoon salt
2/3 cup molasses
7 cups white flour

Heat root beer and shortening. Add salt and molasses. Cool. Add yeast. Stir in flour. Knead and let rise twice. Bake at 350 –375 degrees for 30-40 minutes.

Have fun and remember not to drink while you cook. Only you can prevent forest fires!

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Don't miss this excellent book:

Homemade Root Beer, Soda and Pop

by Stephen Edward Creswell

Homemade Root Beer, Soda and Pop

From soda water to sarsaparilla, this book offers easy-to-follow instructions for more than 60 traditional and modern soft drink recipes. Learn to make your own drinks, which are tastier, healthier and cheaper than anything found in stores! Fascinating stuff for anyone interested in how everyday things like soda pop evolved to become the things we take for granted today.

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