My family moved to Little Rock from parts north and west of the Mason-Dixon when I was 13. I soon realized that not only was a Coke (or its offspring) for breakfast part of Southern food culture, it was becoming part of mine. The smell and taste of coffee may sicken me, but the metallic, syrupy tang of a can of Coke? Just as its slogan promised in 1904: Delicious and Refreshing. And while I’m certainly not the first Extra Crispy writer to wax poetic about my favorite morning beverage, I have begun to wonder why it’s so interwoven in the fabric of Southern breakfast tables.
Bartow J. Elmore, an Atlanta-raised environmental historian and author of Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism ponders that this tradition may be connected to temperatures. He says that soda could be an inevitable pairing for grits and toast because “that cold drink makes sense for a Southerner who is dealing with a 98-degree day. It makes sense that they would be doing it because of the climatic conditions in the South versus the North.”
Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Georgia helped make this notion all the more attainable for the company. Elmore says the drink maintained its nickel price from 1886 to 1959 and slogans like “The Pause that Refreshes” reminded that even those who spent a day in the fields or factories could have a moment to themselves. Coke ingrained itself in diners and soda shops: family-owned (often segregated) establishments that helped project a wholesome, middle-class agenda, he adds. Even today, thoughts of sepia-hued retro hipster Americana are so often intertwined with the brand and the idea of popping off a cap to enjoy a ice-cold bottle at a gas station or break room.
Mark Pendergrast, a historian and the author of For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It, says that “by the Depression era, Coca-Cola had become an important part of the American way of life, particularly in the South” thanks to school tours through local bottling plants. He says because Coca-Cola is so efficient at squashing competition, rivals like Pepsi (which, for what it’s worth, was also founded in the South; pharmacist Caleb Bradham whipped up the concoction for his New Bern, North Carolina store in the 1890s) weren’t able to take over quite as well.
This breakfast drink of champions is not only for Southerners—Californian Joan Didion’s writing process includes a morning Coke—it certainly holds a place in our hearts. It is also not the healthiest custom. With research correlating soft drinks’ ties to obesity, there are serious concerns. Despite this, Coke has its loyalists. My Facebook inquiry (written in white with a red background, natch) to those with my pedigree about our relationship with the beverage has got to be the most popular thing I have ever posted that was not a baby announcement or a ridiculous picture of my cat.
Jack Harvey, who grew up in Atlanta and Little Rock and is now a summer camp director in Texas, says he never was allowed to drink the stuff at home—he says his was a “sweet-tea family”—but, as he got older, he “started drinking more Coke in general, but especially in the morning. I’d grab a Pop-Tart on the way to school and then get a Coke in the vending machine at school.” He’s not much of a breakfast person now, but he admits that Coke Zero Sugar has “won me over.” Similarly, Gabriel Beale grew up in northwest Arkansas, where his mother was so strict that she wouldn’t let him watch The Simpsons and would only let him have a Coke as a treat. That backfired a bit and the now-business development coordinator and ballroom dance instructor living in Bentonville, Arkansas, says he “Ieft home as early as possible as a young man opting for full-time work; resulting immediately in full-time soda enjoyment, quickly becoming a caffeinated means by which to wake up in the mornings and a lifelong vice." Rebecca Pfleger, a teacher in Arlington, Texas, says “Diet Coke was my thing” since her teenage years, when visits to her grandparents in New York would come with side eyes from her northern cousins. Still, she says it “became my friend and I still drink it every single day,” preferring hers poured over the crushed ice found in a massive Sonic drive-in cup.
But, as we’ve become more conscious of what we ingest and soda sales plummet, does this mean this concept of soda for breakfast will not be passed down to younger generations? I hide my morning beverage from my son and Beale says he and his wife, Amber, don’t disallow their daughter to drink it inasmuch as she has “cleverly reduced it's availability” over the years. Similarly, Debbie Klinck, an HR coordinator in Little Rock, says she and her husband, Joe, only let her daughter have it when they’re at restaurants. Perhaps it’s time for the next generation to start its own traditions.