Saturday, January 15, 2011


A tale of ginger lost.

Growing up in Detroit meant that if you felt queasy, someone ran off to the store to get Vernors.  7-Up was a pale substitute, in every way including color.  Vernors was NOT ginger ale, thank you very much; everyone knew that ginger ale was Canada Dry.  Vernors was like a Gran Marnier; sure, technically speaking, it belonged to a certain family of beverages (ginger sodas for Vernors, orange liqueur for Gran Marnier), but what made it outstanding was not that it was the epitome of that family.

It was a creature related, and yet entirely unto itself.

Since it was so fabulous, so weird, so dense with flavors that weren't your basic ginger ale, let alone soda pop (simply "pop" in Detroit, but I'll put in the soda for the east coasters, and to demonstrate my inclusivity and tolerance in rhetoric)...since it was so novel, so tasty odd, the flavor alone had healing powers.  In retrospect, it was probably the ginger that made even carbonated sugar banning parents like my mother relax the rules in cases of illness.  The fact that it was concocted by a pharmacist wouldn't have persuaded her as to its efficacy; she was sharp, and would have immediately cracked something about "snake oil" and "what USED to be in Coke" (forget it, I'm not going to be rhetorically correct and say "Coca-Cola"), and she would have pointed out that she wasn't serving Kool-Aid just because I was sick, because that was just sugar and water and what good was THAT going to do?

But she softened for Vernors.  Everybody did.

(Not everybody softened for the remedy we learned from Wilma Jean, our neighbor across the way at House #1.  "Coke syrup, honey," I heard her drawl as I rested against my mom on a concrete stoop outside on a hot summer night.  "She needs Coke syrup."  What in the world was that?  I could tell my mom didn't even know...Wilma Jean walked back home to get some of her own supply, and my mother didn't know the answer to my questions.  "Does she mean the pop?  Is it cough syrup that tastes like Coke?  How would cough syrup help a queasy tummy?"  She didn't know.  Wilma Jean returned with a small bottle, a cross between a bitters bottle and a medicine bottle.  To my amazement, my mother let me try some -- after reading the label.  It was...Coke syrup.  Had I had some seltzer, or a soda fountain, I could have made soda pop.

It didn't help, even though it scored on the exotic quotient.  But I digress...)

I have learned that some people drank Vernors hot, sometimes only and specifically in cases of illness.  Otherwise, they consumed it like the rest of us:  cold.  Though, truth be told, I sometimes drank mine tepid, when extreme temperatures in either direction could spell a rumbly turned into a rumble.

other graphics on 6-packs encouraged you to bake your ham with a Vernor's glaze
All of this association with illness is endemic to those who grew up with Vernors.  And yet it is a shame.  Because Vernors was one heck of a concoction.  It was..."deliciously different," just as the tagline declared.

In the same way you will hear perfume folk bemoan modern versions of old formulas, anyone who knows their Vernors will talk about the Real Vernors.  The Late, Lamented Vernors.  Old Vernors, the way they used to make it.  They may tell the tale of the near death of the brand, it being purchased by a bigger company, leading to its final death.  The graphics and the mascot remained, was never, ever the same.

The new owner fiddled while the gnome wept.

Detroit's an interesting place.  There are two foodstuffs invented in Detroit, the Boston Cooler, and the Coney Island, which are unique--and which have nothing to do with their geographical namesakes.  The Boston Cooler is basically an ice cream soda, using vanilla ice cream and...did you guess?...Vernors.  The Coney Island is a hot dog with chili sauce over top.  Chili *sauce,* not chili...while it has almost discernible ground meat in it, it is more liquified than what you would typically conjure when thinking "chili."  With our without onions, your coney.

You can imagine the looks of curiosity, disbelief, befuddlement, near anger, derision, then humor that passed across my Brooklyn-born beau's face when I introduced him to a Coney Island.  A situation that kind of piled on when I asked him if I wanted to go to American or Lafayette to try one.  "Which one is closer?" he asked.

But I digress.


Today I tasted Goose Island spicy ginger soda.  In spite of what it doesn't have, I wilted.  It is, in perfume parlance, a flanker, the eau legere of Vernors.

To translate for the not-perfume-smitten, its like a less intense Vernors, but with the spirit of the original.  A lighter version of the original juice.  Unlike the New Vernors, which you might as well ditch for Canada Dry.

We talk scent and memory plenty of times.  We've talked about Francis Kurkdjian and his bubbles.  Today, I mashed 'em up.  What if those bubbles, like some perfumes, immediately whisked you through a life-flashing-before-your-eyes series of vignettes, of memories you could smell and taste?

I would pay online auction mania prices for the chance to taste Real Vernors again.

No longer do I whimper for Vernors when I am sick.  But in over a decade of raising kids, it has never ceased to be my first instinct to reach for some Vernors when they were ailing.

The old Vernors was aged for four years in oak barrels.  In a little bit of auld lang syne, I'm going to raise my glass tonight.  With something aged for 12 years, I think.  A substitute cup of kindness, as it were.

Unless I choose to pilfer my kid's eau legere Goose Island.

∞Vernors sign from the Dewey from Detroit blog
∞Vernor's six-pack from the Vernor's Club on Flickr
∞"The Vernor's Story" poster from Beverage Underground
∞Photo of Lafayette and American Coney Island from Fancy Mag (and a good narrative of the scene, too, though it doesn't mention how each joint would have a guy in an apron out front waving you in, battling with the other guy for your business)
∞Wilma Jean not the real name, though not far off the mark in a family full of double names, up from Kentucky to work in the auto factory, a case of Detroit taking on other geographies for real


Josephine said...

Lovely post! I've been to Detroit exactly once, about five years ago. Well, I flew through, but that has to count for something. The airport is quite nice, with a decent perfume selection in the duty free shop. I remember comparing Kenzo Flower parfum and Flower Oriental while waiting for a connecting flight.

But, as you say, I digress.

Vernors sounds like the kind of thing that could call up all manner of childhood memories. Love the description of your mother and her careful attention to everything consumed by her children.

A Coney Island, with onions, sounds wonderful. At Lafayette, please.

Bloody Frida said...

This post has me all teary-eyed (well, not really but..) as a Clevelander, I too remember the original. Sigh.

We had pop (yes it's pop and I'm sticking to it) on rare occasions. Coke was our favorite, but we also had 'Little Toms' - tiny little bottles of different flavored pop - the Cream Soda was the one that me and my older brother fought over. My dad would buy a case of these for us for very special holidays and events.

Did you have "Little Toms" too? I know that these were made in Cleveland, but figure that they may have made their way to Detroit.

ScentScelf said...

Josephine, a plush sharp ginger vaguely -- herbal? -- concoction that had heft through the bubbles, across more of the palate than a taste numbing cola? Yeah, just a brush against a thought of it calls up memories.

(pauses for a few more)

I haven't been back in a while myself. But yes, if I were to go, the coney stop would be at Lafayette. With onions. Good choice. :)

ScentScelf said...

BF, it's the bubbles. That's what's in your eyes, not really. ;)

"Little Toms"...hmmm, I don't know them...but we had...oh, what was the name of the place? During our Cleveland interlude, the big deal for a party was to go there and pick up a 24 crate (sometimes TWO!) and walk the floor in search of just the right variety of flavors. Goodness, they had sasparilla and root beer and sometimes birch beer...three different kinds of orange...vanilla cream soda plain cream soda other cream soda...ay yi yi! Name is on the tip of my tongue. Anyway, you're right. It was pop. Period. ;)

(Interlude for searching the interwebs. Still looking...) Anyway, no Little Toms in Detroit, nor from my stay in Cleveland. (I see there is a market in collecting the bottles...) Detroit had Faygo, famous for their "red pop." Also in its day a flavor unto itself. Not cherry, not strawberry...kind of like rock & rye with a red fruit approximation? Harder for me to pull that one out of my memory...

Now I'm on a hunt. I'll be back.

Send research leads. And cream soda.

Bloody Frida said...

Was it Cotton Club? And yes, must have been the bubbles! :D

I leave this link, though a bit miffed that they title it SODA - WTF!?!

Musette said...

We were all about the Canada Dry in our house but my mom always had me salivating for the old Coca Cola (she never called it Coke) in the little bottles that one could get out of the old chest coolers at gas stations and corner stores. For a nickel, I think. They sounded sublime.


ScentScelf said...

BF, no, not Cotton Club. I kind of want to say Canfield's, but I'm not finding any evidence to support that online.

Obviously, that Soda History site was written by a furriner.

ScentScelf said...


Nickel bottles! Somewhere up north (a region of the mitten), my grandfather had a secret. We drove the two lane out of town for a while, and pulled over at a gas station/general store. "Here's a nickel," he said, "put it in over there." Open up the heavens and sing. NuGrape! In a machine that had this crazy vertical row of holes with tantalizing bottlenecks sticking out, including NuGrape! Oh, to have grandparents that let you drink pop.

Himself, he was tickled that it was still a nickel. In retrospect, I suspect that was part of the fun of the discovery for him. Though he did point out that not much earlier, they had a "machine" that was really just a cooler with ice, and you would simply *reach in and take one out of the ice.* Which would be, I believe, your chest cooler.

It's hard to convince today's Coke addicts (and yes, I need to use the capital letter there) that once upon a time, bottles were six ounces. And that would do for the day.

Of course, it's also hard to convince some perfume folk that 1-2 sprays are enough, or that a dozen bottles might be all you need. ;)

Anonymous said...

Having just run across New Vernor's for the first time ever, at our local Wal-Mart, I must insist to you that it STILL kicks the crap out of Canada Dry. I now stock a minimum of two bottles in the pantry, in case of rumbly tummies.

It is even better for rumbly tummies when poured over a chunk of ginger, either fresh (which I rarely have on hand) or crystallized, and allowed to sit for an hour or so.

Lovely to read your memories. Oh, those grandparent treats! Mine were somewhat different - sodypop, as my grandmother always called it, and those horrifying slabs of Neapolitan-flavored candy made with desiccated coconut - but still. Treasure.

ScentScelf said...

Ahaha! Take THAT, Canada Dry. :)

Muse, what a good idea. We keep crystallized ginger around here, as much to chew on (esp. "sanctioned" in cases of rumbly tummy, but also as a treat) as to cook with. But to steep ginger pieces, fresh or crystallized, in the ginger brew before why didn't I think of that?? Shall do next time.

(Plus, there is the magic of the voodoo, right? The making of the potion carries a certain curative heft alongside the potion itself. Secrets of Parenthood and Life, Chapter Two.)

Oh, those tri-layer slabs...I remember them well. And, come to think of it, I think I first met one at a grandparent's house. Hunh. And yes; treasure.

Vanessa said...

Loved reading about the heritage of Vernors, and its Goosey flanker, all of course quite alien beverages to us Brits. Our nearest equivalent (fizzy drink favoured in most cases of non-specific childhood ailment, though lacking the ginger twist) would be Lucozade, also a modern travesty of its 60s self. Or maybe I just went and lost my sweet tooth.

It has now been largely repositioned as a sports and energy drink. So, given my current fitness levels, Lucozade conveys an even greater sense of alienation than the formulation alone. ; - )

ScentScelf said...

Of course went scampering off through the interwebs, and settled in with Wikipedia. Lucozade is made/owned by GlaxoSmithKline? ::sits up a little straighter:: My, my; it could still be sugar water--in fact, at 21 t sugar per 500ml, it kind of is--but that does carry the pharmaceutical heft, now, doesn't it?

Chuckling at the pattern of increasing alienation...funny, that. It's like they identified a generation and haunt them with their shifting emphasis. I see that it is the "official drink of the Football Association," like our Gatorade is here for the NFL.

I am tempted to do further musing on the salt side and the sugar side of the ocean. But, as we know well by now, I am easily lured into musing. ;)

I am sorry to hear that your Lucozade has become the disappointment my Vernors has. Perhaps we should start concocting in the kitchen, much as Muse up there does...

Ann said...

Town Club pop was where you could create your own cases of pop.