Feb. 11, 2011

A Note From Ira on Our "Original Recipe" Show 

This episode of our show kicked off a wave of international press coverage that, inevitably, included inaccuracies.

To be clear: We are not claiming that we have found the recipe used today for Coca-Cola. We believe we found a recipe that is either the original recipe made by the inventor of Coke, John Pemberton, or a version of Coca-Cola that he made either before or after the product hit the market in 1886. We believe that because it was found in the notebook of his friend, on a page entitled "Coco-Cola recipe improved," and because it was found in Pemberton's own notebook, in Coca-Cola's archives.

Much of the press about our story takes at face value Coca-Cola's statements that we have not found the recipe for Coke, present or past. But when asked if the company has actually checked to see if this formula matches the original formula - which archivist Phil Mooney assured me they still have - company spokespeople always politely sidestep the question. So it seems entirely possible that no one at Coke has checked. If they'd checked to see if the formulas match, why not say so?

Phil Mooney even admitted something interesting about the recipe in our interview: "Could it be a precursor? Yeah, absolutely." He then went on to express, as his opinion, not as fact: "Is this the one that went to market? I don't think so."

Since the original formula is no longer made by Coke, and since all the ingredients seem to be on the public record, why not release the old formula? This year, Coke's 125th anniversary, would be a great time for it!

So we stand by our story. We believe the recipe is either the version Pemberton brought to market in 1886, a precursor, or an improved version made after it was already on the market. As for our bigger point, that the ingredients to Coke's supposedly super-secret formula can be figured out without much trouble by anyone who wants to, that seems incontrovertibly true. Versions of the recipe have been published starting in the 1960's. Not to mention that a device called a gas chromatograph can tell a trained scientist the ingredients in coke or any other beverage, not with perfect accuracy, but close enough that you're in the ballpark.

This week's story about Coca-Cola is actually a knockoff of a story by historian Cliff Doerksen about Mince Pie, in which he tells the truly surprising story of how:

To its 19th- and early-20th-century admirers, mince pie was "unquestionably the monarch of pies," "the great American viand," "an American institution" and "as American as the Red Indians." It was the food expatriates longed for while sojourning abroad. Acquiring an appreciation for it was proof that an immigrant was becoming assimilated. It was the indispensable comfort dish dispatched to American expeditionary forces in World War I to reinforce their morale with the taste of home.

Then he arrives at the magnificent thesis of his article:

Most remarkably, mince pie achieved and maintained its hegemony despite the fact that everyone—including those who loved it—agreed that it reliably caused indigestion, provoked nightmares, and commonly afflicted the overindulgent with disordered thinking, hallucinations, and sometimes death.

And then the fun begins. Fantastic anecdotes. Stuff you've never heard or imagined. It's encyclopedic knowledge, served up with bemusement and a pleasing and dark sense of amazement about the world.

In the article Cliff makes two mince pies according to old recipes and is stunned at how much beef fat and sugary crap went into them. In those pre-refrigeration days, that's what kept the meat in the pie from spoiling. He builds the narrative suspense—what will these monstrosities taste like?—before arriving at the story's climactic surprise: they're delicious! The story won the 2010 prize that's like the Oscars for food writers: the James Beard Award. It's a completely entertaining, enlightening story, and I tried to talk Cliff into doing the same thing with this Coca-Cola recipe for our show back in December. Yes, okay, basically I wanted him to rip off his own great story for our benefit. Then on December 17th, he died unexpectedly at the age of 47. Doing this story, flying around the country with producer Ben Calhoun, it was hard to stop thinking about what a funny, fascinating job Cliff – a real historian as well as a sharp, witty prose stylist – would've made of it. He's greatly missed.