Fizzy Business

After more than 150 years, the great American soda fountain still inspires


| November-December 2011


To sip a Pink Poodle is to experience serious liquid seduction: to fall in love with the magnolia gleam in the fluted glass, the pretty fizz that tickles your nose, the burst of floral sweetness that trips across your tongue. Perched on the edge of a burnished chrome stool at the Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, I’ve temporarily traded swizzle sticks for straws and martinis for malteds—all in the hope of better understanding a beloved, if increasingly endangered, American icon: the soda fountain.

Peter Freeman is my local soda jerk, and the Pink Poodle is one of his original creations—a riff on the soda float, carefully composed of small-batch hibiscus syrup, a coarse stream of carbonated water straight from a gleaming wall-mounted spigot, and top-hatted with a tight white scoop of vanilla ice cream. In its restrained balance of sweet and tart, carbonated and creamy, the Poodle harks back to the glory days of the American fountain, when complex drinks rooted in botanicals, bitters, and fresh fruits were seen as emblems of a soda jerk’s inventiveness, not a vehicle for corn syrup and artificial coloring.

The building where we’re sitting, on a quiet corner on the fringes of brownstone Brooklyn, has housed a drugstore continuously since 1890—though this incarnation was christened only last summer. Becoming a soda jerk at age 33 hadn’t always been part of Freeman’s plan, but he has taken to the role with passion, tinkering with recipes, stocking the bar with period glassware, scouring old pharmacy manuals for inspiration, and hunting for local ingredients to spotlight in the shop. And, happily, the community has responded to him and his anachronistic concoctions with enthusiasm.

“Families come in, sit at the counter, and know your name. And it does make you feel like you’re serving a purpose,” he says, flashing a sideways grin. “I don’t know when this kind of place became old school. It just seems like the way things should be.”

 

While the phrase “soda fountain” may conjure up a midcentury malt shop tableau—part Archie comic, part Happy Days—the roots of the American soda fountain run much deeper, and much darker. Carbonated water has been prized for its curative power for millennia, but commercial fountains, which claimed to artificially reproduce the benefits of spring waters, didn’t become widespread until the first quarter of the 19th century—and then were marketed primarily for their medicinal, not pleasure-giving, properties. In fact, it was because of soda water’s perceived therapeutic benefits that fountains ended up in drugstores.