Of the thousands of things I’ve tasted over my life, root beer holds the distinction of producing the strongest memories for me. Most, if not all of the memories are from the first six or so years of my life.
When I was very small we spent a lot of time at my Aunt Pat and Uncle Don’s tiny house on Stewart Avenue on the east side of Elgin. When we were there, I was allowed to have a glass of root beer. The root beer was always served to me in an aluminum tumbler. Most of the families I knew had a set like this — each glass was a different color aluminum and the rim flared out a little — I can still remember the feeling on my bottom lip. I think the aluminum must have made the root beer taste slightly different.
My Aunt and Uncle smoked. A lot. Their walls, ceilings, furniture and appliances were always covered in a not-so-thin film of tobacco. I imagine that also made the root beer taste different.
Another of my root beer memories is of going to the A&W or the Dog-n-Suds. These were drive-in restaurants where you’d drive up to a space and a waitress would come to your car. She’d take your order (all I ever remember ordering was root beer) and bring it back on a tray that attached to the side of your car by hanging on the partially rolled up window. My mom and dad always got big mugs of root beer and I always got a small one. We’d drink our root beers, maybe talk a little, then Dad would call the waitress over and she’d take the tray away. The root beer at the drive-ins tasted fresh and crisp and smooth and cold. The mugs had thick rims and I remember the feeling of those too.
I don’t remember when I stopped liking root beer — but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with the filth of my Aunt’s house. After Uncle Don died she quit taking care of her house and possibly smoked more — at least smoked more in the house since she didn’t go out much. I must have associated root beer with Aunt Pat’s house and lost my taste for it. The thought of drinking it could bring on a gag reflex.
In the 7th grade my science teacher, Mr. Schwarzkopf, had the class make our own root beer. I don’t know if the finished product tasted like real root beer because I couldn’t bring myself to try it.
In the past few years my kids have been ordering root beers at restaurants and I’d taste theirs to see if I still hated it. It turned out I didn’t hate the taste at all — in fact I liked it and even liked the memories it brought.
This afternoon I poured myself a glass of root beer — this time in a glass tumbler — and enjoyed it so much I had another and thought about the house on Stewart Avenue and the drive-in restaurants with the busy waitresses. And even Mr. Schwarzkopf — but only in passing since I didn’t actually drink the root beer we made in class.