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“You got a good sarsaparilla?”
By Ron Scopelliti
That Sam Elliot line from The Big Lebowski has been haunting me for the past couple of weeks. Much like Elliot’s movie character, I’ve been on a quest to find a good sarsaparilla. Or, for that matter, any sarsaparilla.
It all began because I recently started playing Fallout: New Vegas, a retro-futurist, post-apocalyptic computer game that I bought a few years ago. Why I’m suddenly discovering a game that I bought a few years ago is a matter for another column, or possibly a therapist’s couch. But anyway, the game features a wide variety of comestibles to heal your wounds, and Sunset Sarsaparilla is my go-to, because it heals you with fewer side-effects than the more well-known Nuka Cola, or the various varieties of irradiated insect and rodent meat available in the wild.
But as I was playing, it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I drank sarsaparilla in real life. It also occurred to me that, even though I remember liking it as a kid, I couldn’t remember what it tasted like. I had to get some.
I figured with Smithfield’s abundance of grocery stores, I’d have no problem finding a six pack, or at least a one-liter bottle, but there was none anywhere. I found all varieties of premium sodas: root beer, birch beer, and with the unlikely popularity of the Moscow Mule, an overabundance of ginger beer. But when it came to the favorite soft drink of the old west, this town was drier than a tumbleweed in a hundred-year drought, or some such cowboy-esque metaphor.
Much like the Grinch had to stop Christmas from coming, I had to find sarsaparilla; but how?
The obvious choice was to go over to Yacht Club, where I was sure I could find pretty much any type of soda. But, though I revere the place as a Rhode Island institution and a shining example of how a small business can thrive in an industry dominated by giant corporations, Yacht Club also brings back a lot of childhood memories. This wouldn’t be a problem if I had been better at being a kid. But I never really got the hang of childhood, and I wasn’t looking forward to encountering memories of that awkward period. To be honest, I haven’t gotten the hang of adulthood either, but at least I can consider that a work in progress rather than a failed experiment.
Going there offered the possibility of horrible flashbacks to first communions and graduation parties that always featured cases of Yacht Club soda. Horrifying echoes of the suburban American dream circa 1975 – AMC Gremlins and Evel Knievel toys. Pet Rocks, and Sonny and Cher comedy sketches. Teachers forcing us to do the Hustle in gym class. And Bert Convy. Bert stinking Convy. Even though Yacht Club Soda was a pleasant memory for me, how could I know that it wouldn’t act as a sweet, carbonated anxiety trigger and bring back these tear-your-eyes-out-like-Oedipus images?
To make a long story at least short enough to fit in a two-page spread, I did go to Yacht Club, and my fears were unfounded. The guys at Yacht Club were so friendly and on top of things that there wasn’t any time for flashbacks of Spiro Agnew or the Captain and Tennille. The one memory that did spring to mind was a recollection of returning crates of empty bottles with my Dad, but that was a good one. Before I knew it, I was out of there with a four-pack of reasonably-priced, locally-brewed sarsaparilla, and no ill effects.
It turns out the sarsaparilla tasted very much as I expected, and as the Yacht Club guys described it. Kind of like root beer, but stronger. It’s got more of a bite, more complexity.
Now my question is, how can I get sarsaparilla back into the mainstream? If a Sam Elliot character, whose drink preferences were admittedly overshadowed by the Dude’s White Russians, couldn’t get the shelves filled with sarsaparilla, how could I hope to?
Maybe I could take the route that saw ginger beer popping up on the shelves at Target – alcoholize it! Maybe mix it with bourbon, serve it in a stainless steel mug, and give it an old-timey western name like a Durango Donkey or Jackson Hole Jackass.
But, given its taste, complexity, and alleged post-apocalyptic healing powers, sarsaparilla is probably a drink best savored on its own. Or maybe, with a side of radioactive scorpion meat, just to add a savory element and a bit of a glow.