April 5, 2012

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I'm sure you remember where you were that fateful afternoon. I wish I could forget the events that unfolded tragically before me but they are forever burned into my psyche. Here in Chattanooga, gray clouds and misting rain were an ominous portend of the awful news that was about to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Coca-Cola changed its formula.

Chattanooga has a long history with Coca-Cola as the home of its first bottling plant. If you’re a native of the city I’m sure that your mother, like mine, told you bedtime stories of how the three wise men of the mountain—Benjamin Thomas, Joseph Whitehead and Jack Lupton—were visited by a band of mischievous Rock City gnomes and given the power to bottle this magical elixir so that it could be shared with the people of the world.

Perhaps fueled by Aqua Net Extra Super Hold fumes or confused by the popularity of Jack Wagner, focus groups in the early 1980s began to express a preference for sweeter sodas and “Project Kansas” was born to explore the reformulation of Coke. At the same time, both Coke and Pepsi soft drink engineers had another monumental change in the works. On Nov. 6, 1984, the two companies announced they were no longer using sugar in their drinks and were instead replacing it with high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS.  

When Coca-Cola announced the formula change I panicked and bought a figal (five gallon container) of original formula syrup and tucked it away like a bottle of Château Pétrus. Turns out that was a bit of an overreaction. Less than three months after the introduction of New Coke, news anchor Peter Jennings interrupted “General Hospital” to announce Coca-Cola was returning to its original formula, prompting U.S. Sen. David Pryor to call the reintroduction a “meaningful moment in U.S. history.” Indeed.  

But the change from cane sugar to HFCS had gotten lost in the drama and hype over New Coke. The switch went largely unnoticed by the general public, but many of the more discerning devotees of Coca-Cola noted that although the reintroduced Coke was supposed to be the original formula, something wasn’t quite right. And they were right. Luckily, nothing changed South of the Border.

With its glistening glass bottle and white “Hecho en Mexico” label on the neck, Mexican Coca-Cola, or MexiCoke, is the answer to the prayers of many a connoisseur of the carbonated concoction. You see, Mexican Coke is still made with actual cane sugar instead of the cloying HFCS. A comparison of the ingredients in U.S.-bottled Coke and its Mexican counterpart shows only one other slight difference. MexiCoke has a bit more sodium, likely due to differences in the carbonation process.  

It’s probably obvious by now, but I’m a serious Coke head. I can ramble on about Brix levels (the ratio of dissolved sugar to water in a liquid) and wax eloquently on the virtue of keeping ice out of Coke (it waters it down—don’t argue with me I’m a purist) and for me, Mexican Coke is as addicting as … well, Mexican coke.  

Until recently, Mexican Cokes were as hard to find as Bobby Flay’s humility, but now they are popping up in big box stores and food trucks all over Chattanooga. For this, I say “Muchas gracias, Mexico!”

I may never recover from the brutalizing trauma that was inflicted upon me during the dark reign of New Coke, but a smooth glass bottle of MexiCoke is a sweet, sugary salve for my wounds. With time and a bottle opener I can heal.  

Mike McJunkin cooks better than you. Visit his Facebook page (Sushi and Biscuits). We compel you.


April 5, 2012

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