Friday, September 23, 2011

Your Highly Refined Cola Palette

We're getting a new Taco Bell in Vernon. This is pretty exciting for a town of 11,000 people, the kind of happening that doesn't occur very often. Now, I like Taco Bell just fine, but let's call it what it is: it's Lego Food. There's never any new ground broken at Taco Bell. We'll never get fish tacos from them. That's not what they do. What they DO do is combine their seven or eight pre-existing ingredients into a new form or shape and call it something peppy, like the new Beefy Crunchita. It's all the same stuff. Mathematically, they're bound to run out eventually.

It was during one of the frequent recent conversations about Taco Bell that someone told me they don't like Taco Bell. When asked why, the replied, "Because they serve Pepsi products."

"Well, yeah," I said, thinking we were about to shift into a 'corporations are evil' talk, one I'm always ready to have. "Pepsico owns Taco Bell."

"I just can't stand Pepsi," this person continued. "I drink Coke, or nothing at all."

"I don't support them if I can help it," I said. "They're a little too pervasive for my tastes."

"I don't know about all that," he said. "I just hate the way Pepsi tastes."

Ooookay, I've had this talk with people before. You may be one of the people I'm about to start complaining about. If that's the case, I'm really sorry, but we need to have this discussion. Next time, I'll pick on the Amish, or something, fair enough?

In the depth and breadth of human achievement, we've got an incalculable number of cheeses to savor and sample. There are such foods as truffles, with complex flavors that can be experienced different ways every time you eat them. Wines distilled from grapes which produce distinct bouquets in the nose and mouth. Other spirits that evoke complicated notes across the tongue. A multitude of comestibles and potables from around the world--and you've chosen to cultivate a highly developed Cola Palette?

I'm amazed at the sheer number of people in my life who tell me that Brand X Cola tastes like bum urine and Brand Y Cola is ambrosia, and refusing to recognize that they both taste, in fact, like cola. They won't and cannot accept it. And believe me, I've tried. In fact, it's just the opposite: they look at you with a mixture of horror and sympathy, as if you had your nose shot off by a Sengalese sniper and now you can't smell for that gaping hole in your face. "What do you mean, you can't tell the difference? They're night and day!"

Let me say this as gently as possible: no, they are not. The formula for the taste of cola--the flavors that make up the cola taste--are the same. You can vary two things in the formula to change an aspect of it. You can add or subtract sugar (or corn syrup, blech)...or you can add or subtract carbonation. That's it, really. I promise. Cola is cola. Just like root beer is root beer. And Dr. Pepper is Mr. Pibb. No, it really is.

I'm not saying there aren't differences in the drinks. There are. Barq's has that weird metallic aftertaste because they inexplicably add caffeine to their root beer mix. I guess that's the "sparks" in the slogan. For the record, I think Pepsi tastes sweeter, and I think Coke has a little more carbonation in it. But they still taste like COLA. Like RC. Like Shasta. Like Faygo. It's not rocket science. It's not even rocket fuel. It's just soft drinks. And no, I can't tell the difference between Sprite and 7-Up, either, and please don't tell me that you can.

And even as some of you are howling with disdain, others may be asking, "Why do you care? It's just Coke vs. Pepsi." My answer to that is, I don't, not really. But when I see how people get worked up over it, to the point that they will berate another person for their apparent lack of taste and breeding, it reminds me of the old Ford vs. Chevy controversy, and so on and so on. And it's a reminder that most Americans will find anything they can to care about, provided that it's not something complicated, like contemporary politics. In fact, I think most of the political fights of the last fifteen years have been of the Coke vs. Pepsi variety, and the passion with which they are argued tells me that the political strategists took a page or two out of the cola wars playbook. Even the cans are red and blue. Funny, really, when you think about it. People will boycott a Taco Bell because they serve Pepsi instead of Coke, but they won't boycott a Chik-Fil-A because they support Right to Life organizations with their corporate dollars.

But hey, it's all about freedom of choice, right? Right.
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