That's Our Pop!

Bubbling up with sugar-infused zing, old-school soda beverages evoke youth, fun, nostalgia—and living dangerously
Classic mid-century sodas: Moxie, Dr. Pepper, and Squirt.
Edgar Bergen (left) and his sidekick dummy Charlie McCarthy entertain over the classic big red cooler of Coca-Cola, their weekly radio show's sponsor, advertisement from 1950.

As the 20th century neared its end, it became apparent to many people that we were facing a soda crisis.

Soda, soda pop, pop, the soft drink—whatever you call it—was under fire. Once an innocent, indeed playful beverage—enjoy that pop of fizz as the bottle opens—it was suddenly something to be shunned, its image sordid, sullied, and sinful.

Schools began banning it. Politicians threatened to tax it. Killjoy nutritionists blamed it for obesity, osteoporosis, tooth decay, diabetes, and kidney stones. And if, heaven forbid, ingredients include caffeine, the Center for Science in the Public Interest warned, foolhardy drinkers face “nervousness, irritability, sleeplessness, and rapid heartbeat.”

Just this year, the Center went as far as holding a National Soda Summit, featuring mayors and congress members, “to broaden and strengthen comprehensive policy initiatives to reduce soda consumption and improve America's health.”

In some circles, a mom or dad might as well hand their child a cigarette as a soda.

Then why is John Nese, “arguably the nicest guy in the world,” according to one customer, smiling as he stands amidst 550 varieties of soda?

It’s because he loves soda.

Why?

The fizz. The flavor. The natural goodness. The memories.

“For me, when I was a little kid we went on a family vacation to Happy Camp, up near the Oregon border,” Nese remembers. “I saw water bubbling out of the ground and tasted it. It was carbonated! I said, if I could pipe it to my school, if I could put in pipes, we could have soda in school instead of water!”

As summer rolls around and people plan parties, how many give thought, real thought, to the soda they will serve? The chardonnay, sure, they’ll study up on that. Some like oak, others prefer the pure fruit. Beer? They’ll lay in a supply of lager for some, pale ale for others, a black porter for uncle Jack.

And of course there’s sugar-free sparkling water for the cautious, and energy drinks for fans of extreme everything. And Coke. And Diet Coke.

That’s not good enough for Nese, a third-generation Angeleno whose store, Galco’s Soda Pop Stop, began as a grocery in 1897. He carries bottles of Lemmy Sparkling Lemonade, Bulldog root beer, Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray (flavored with extract of celery seed), Dry Soda Rhubarb, Americana Black Cherry, and Almdudler Krauterlimonade (the national soft drink of Austria).

“You can just dream of flavors,” Nese says. “I like mint. A lot of people don’t like mint. Have you ever had a banana-flavored soda? We have them. We have cucumber soda.”

“We have little brands of soda that still come in glass bottles and are still made with cane sugar. They’re made using real ingredients.”
But Nese isn’t just selling stuff. He selling an idea—and it’s one we might want to adopt this summer when it’s time to pop a sugar-infused beverage while warding off the nutrition police among us, whether they be our mothers, spouses, or so-called friends.

His message goes back to his memories, back when radio dramas were giving way to TV. It was a time before “each American,” according to one media account of a Purdue University study, drank 597 cans of soda a year—consuming thereby 32 pounds of sugar.

“Today, people have soda 20 times a day,” Nese says, surprisingly rueful, perhaps, for a guy who hawks soda. Drinking soda in such vast quantities, day in and day out, means that drinking soda is no longer “a big thing.” For Nese, that’s bad.

Back in the 1950s, he says, drinking a soda was a big thing, not something done casually, while working or sitting around the house. At the Nese residence, in fact, no soda could be found. “We had milk and water in our refrigerator, maybe orange juice occasionally.”