The Magazine

He's a Pepper, Too

Terry Eastland, drinker.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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A recent edition of Newsweek ran a photograph of Barack Obama that was taken in the White House the morning of January 20, just after the Obamas and the Bushes had finished coffee and were about to leave for the inauguration. The caption noted that Obama was fussing with his tie, which he was, but it failed to observe the most important aspect of the photo--that on a table in front of Obama, right next to an elegant silver coffee urn, stood a bottle of Diet Dr Pepper.

I don't know who asked for Dr Pepper, the Bushes or the Obamas or someone else. Maybe an Obama aide: I'm told someone "close" to the president is a big fan of the drink.

I am too. I discovered it early in life. I was born in Texas, and Dr Pepper happens to be the national soft drink of our state (understand, Texas has national things).

The drink was invented in Texas. In 1885 pharmacist Charles Alderton of the Old Corner Drug Store in Waco mixed fruit extracts and sweeteners to make a syrup for a new carbonated drink. The store's owner, Wade Morrison, really liked it. So did fountain customers. Word of the drink spread, and people came in asking for "a Waco." Soon Morrison named it "Dr. Pepper"--though just why remains unclear. (The period in the name was dropped in 1950.)

As demand for the drink grew, Morrison sold the syrup to other fountain operators in Waco. Eventually he and a partner built their own bottling company. They also sold the right to produce and distribute Dr Pepper to bottlers in nearby towns. It wasn't long before Dallas became the headquarters of the Dr Pepper Company, which eventually began moving product (as they say) outside the state.

I think my liking for Dr Pepper has something to do with the many occasions I visited my grandmother, Lolla Eastland, who was born a decade after Alderton mixed that first Dr Pepper. The drink had become quite popular in Texas when Lolla and her husband, who lived in Hillsboro, a small town near Waco, began raising their family. Back then the bottles bore such confident mottoes as "King of Beverages" and "Good for Life!" And Lolla kept buying the drink once the grandchildren started coming.

She kept wooden cases full of Dr Pepper on the back porch, right near the screen door that we wore out, coming and going, the mosquitoes joining us in the sweltering summers. The cases had capacity for 24 of the old six-ounce bottles, and we made sure to keep a few cooling in the icebox.

Lolla also had some Coca-Cola around, but we didn't like it as much. Maybe because Dr Pepper was older by a year--Coke was invented in 1886, in Georgia--though none of us were historian enough to know that. We did know that Dr Pepper was a Texas original, a provincial but conclusive argument for its superiority.

The logo we usually saw on the Dr Pepper bottles at Lolla's was a circle on which the numbers 10, 2, and 4 were placed right where they'd be if the circle were the face of a clock. And those were the times you were supposed to drink Dr Pepper--three per day. Which, of course, is what Dr Pepper marketers wanted you to think.

Years later I learned that this pitch drew on a Columbia University study concluding that people experience a sugar "letdown" at the hours of 10:30 A.M., 2:30 P.M., and 4:30 P.M. The marketers saw their drink as the perfect solution: It would pick you up. I don't recall any of us cousins ever growing faint, but we were delighted to have three times daily to present our case for popping another cap. If only we'd known that an Ivy League study was on our side. .  .  . On second thought, that wouldn't have impressed us much.

For Dr Pepper as for its competitors, the glass bottles used for so many decades yielded to cans in the 1960s, and soon plastic bottles. It was around that time, too, that the first Diet Dr Pepper appeared. It was labeled Dietetic Dr Pepper. And it was a flop. Dietetic sounded a lot like diabetic, and people thought the drink was some kind of medicine. Sugar-free Dr Pepper, introduced later, though without that problem, never really caught on.

As the nonsugar sweeteners improved, the Diet Dr Pepper in that White House photo eventually was brought to fizz. Diet DP, smooth as can be, has been a big hit. And yes, I'm having one right now, though I still like regular DP, notwithstanding the calories. If only they would bring back the old logos. King of Beverages--I'll say.

TERRY EASTLAND