A Vermont Author's Book on Coca-Cola Undermines the Product's All-American Image | Arts News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Arts News

A Vermont Author's Book on Coca-Cola Undermines the Product's All-American Image

State of the Arts


Published July 31, 2013 at 10:49 a.m.

It’s ironic that one of the biggest selling points of the third edition of For God, Country & Coca-Cola is the inclusion of the original “secret” recipe for the famous soft drink. As author Mark Pendergrast meticulously details in his doorstop-size book about the 127-year-old company, it’s not the product — which is 99 percent sugar-water — that has made “Coca-Cola” the second most universally recognized word after “OK.” It’s the marketing.

“Coca-Cola is above all else image,” Pendergrast says by phone from his Colchester home. He’s authored a number of books, including a sweeping history of coffee, Uncommon Grounds, and another about the U.S. Epidemic Intelligence Service, Inside the Outbreaks, but Pendergrast kicked off his career with the first edition of Coca-Cola in 1993. He’s been studying the company’s image for more than 20 years — and continues to put out new editions as that image changes with the times.

Pendergrast’s first edition included an original recipe the Coca-Cola archivist inexplicably handed him, perhaps unaware that the formula labeled “X” was actually the company’s most ostentatiously guarded secret. To the third edition, Pendergrast has added a facsimile of a nearly identical recipe he was later given by the great-granddaughter of Frank Robinson, the man who named the original 1886 drink and devised the logo’s iconic script.

The company still claims it holds the “real” secret recipe in a vault at the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta. Its representatives would have preferred Pendergrast not publish the well-documented versions he found. But, as a Coca-Cola spokesman told him, that’s hardly because the company is worried about knockoffs.

“We’ve spent over a hundred years and untold amounts of money building the equity of that brand name,” the spokesman told Pendergrast. “Without our economies of scale and our incredible marketing system, whoever tried to duplicate our product would get nowhere.”

The rocky evolution of that “system” makes up the bulk of Pendergrast’s tome, accurately subtitled The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. Three new chapters detail recent allegations against the company: that it has depleted India’s water table, colluded with paramilitary groups in Colombia to murder union employees, and turned a blind eye to child labor in El Salvadoran sugar fields. The book also recounts Coca-Cola’s maneuvers in the face of the obesity epidemic, such as its behind-the-scenes efforts to kill proposed soda-tax bills. (Those efforts have all been successful, including in Vermont.)

Not surprisingly, the World of Coca-Cola museum’s gift store doesn’t carry For God, Country & Coca-Cola in any edition. But Pendergrast writes that his book is not intended as an exposé of a “monstrous corporation that is ruining the world.” Indeed, he insists Coca-Cola does much good — including contributing $125 million a year to charities such as the World Wildlife Fund. His first publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, inaccurately labeled the book as “unauthorized,” Pendergrast says; he finally got Basic Books, which published the next two editions, to change it to “definitive.”

Coca-Cola is more like a well-written, absorbing, fact-filled story. Pendergrast depicts the company’s succession of CEOs as fully rounded characters and shapes each chapter around a narrative. In his chapter about New Coke (“The Marketing Blunder of the Century”), he recaps the disaster in a rollicking tale that culminates with CEO Roberto Goizueta telling his friends, “I’m sleeping like a baby. I wake up crying every hour.”

And, for those who didn’t read editions one or two, the story of Coke’s origins is particularly intriguing.

Yes, Coke originally had cocaine. Until 1903, when public-image problems appeared, the soft drink contained a tiny amount of fluid extract of coca leaf — about 4 milligrams per drink. (A typical snorted dose of cocaine, Pendergrast writes, has 35 milligrams.) The kola nut, from which Coke got the second half of its name as well as its caffeine, remains an ingredient.

Why cocaine? In the 1880s, the medical journals were touting its success as an antidote to morphine addiction, and Coke’s inventor, the Atlanta chemist John Pemberton, was a morphine addict. He got the idea of mixing the drug into a drink from a Corsican entrepreneur who had combined it with Bordeaux wine to create Vin Mariani. In slavish imitation, Pemberton came up with French Wine Coca, but when Atlanta went dry in 1885, he eliminated the alcohol and scrambled to invent the first formula for Coke.

The drink is still evolving with the market, and Pendergrast praises one new development. At Misery Loves Co. in Winooski, he says, he recently imbibed a bottle of Mexican Coke sweetened with sugarcane instead of corn syrup, which “tastes better, in my humble opinion,” says the Atlanta-born author. Pendergrast adds that he drinks Coke “very little.”

The Coca-Cola Company continues to evolve, too. It had just announced the opening of its first bottling plant in Myanmar (aka Burma) in 60 years when Pendergrast’s book hit Seven Days’ review desk. It seems possible that Cuba, one of the world’s two remaining countries without a Coke bottling plant, will soon leave the other, North Korea, uniquely deprived.

If that happens, the company will celebrate. And Pendergrast will, one hopes, revise and expand his opus with more details of perfidy, strategy, triumph, failure and, well, delicious fun.

"For God, Country & Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It" (third edition), by Mark Pendergrast, Basic Books, 523 pages. $21.99.