Friday, February 20, 2009

Forget just being a Pepper, I want to own it!

Feb. 20, 2009
Posted by Noah

You would think, given all the corporate secrecy around the secret formulas for different soda pops, fried chicken batter and sandwich sauces in America that we were dealing with issues of national security when it came to wanting to know the ratio of mustard to mayonnaise on our hamburgers, or of black pepper to paprika in our extra crispy, but no. It is just food. Still, Heritage has itself a good ol’ fashioned piece of American cola history that is as complex as and KFC original recipe mix or Coca-Cola syrup formula: Our May Americana Auction will feature a lot that should be of extra special interest to Texans, and to any one that ever swigged an ice cold soda on a very hot day – the mid-1880s original notebook containing the original handwritten formula for what was to become Dr. Pepper, the first – and arguably the greatest – of America’s big three soda pops.

Granted that Dr. Pepper isn’t what it used to be in terms of soft drink influence. You would be hard pressed to make the case that it is in America’s Top 10 beverages, let alone the top three. To Texans of a certain age, however, Dr. Pepper is what it’s all about. That original formula, deep within the Heritage vault – the source of so much speculation in the 130 years since its creation, and so much corporate deflection – is getting set to be auctioned off. Can a revival of homemade Dr. Pepper be that far off?

Uh… Probably very far off… That, though, is no hindrance. It’s the meaning of the thing; it’s the role that Dr. Pepper has played in the development of Texas’s National identity, and how it spurred on the greater success of Coke and Pepsi, and helped define the very role of America to the world.

Heritage’s Director of Americana, Tom Slater, has been involved intimately with getting the crumbling notebook with the original formula in it – Page 19, to be exact – and he has also been intricately involved with the various aspects of the potential legal wrangling around it. While he couldn’t show me the notebook just now when we met in his office, he could assure me that the formula, as it’s represented in its original state in the notebook, is probably not even close to the current formula, especially in its use of denatured rum.

This is a lot that deserves pages and pages dedicated to it, so interesting is the history, and so much secrecy is there around it, but I don’t have the space here to do anything but offer a tease. There is much in Dr. Pepper that led to America’s corporate culture, but there is also much of the history of Texas in it, as well as proof that Waco – now little more than the midway point between Dallas and Austin, the home of Baylor University and former home of the Branch Davidians – was once the most important city in the state, if not the nation. It’s all there in that sweet, odd taste.

For my part, I can remember numerous field trips to the Dallas Dr. Pepper plant at Greenville Avenue and Mockingbird Lane throughout my childhood. I drive past that intersection everyday on the way to work. Much like the original formula for the drink, though, so much has changed about the site of the plant that all that remains is a clock and sign. It’s now a super market, some apartments and a rail station, just as Dr. Pepper is but a horse in the Snapple stable. That does not, however, diminish the potential power of this piece of superb Texana/Americana at auction. In a corporate culture that closely protects even its oldest secrets, the fact that this original recipe is going to be out of the bag is pretty spectacular. It may not save the world, but it’ll have a whole host of folks whistling the tune, doing the dance with Vim, Vigor and Vitality and saying they, too, indeed wished they could be a Pepper… Stay tuned for more on this as the auction approaches.