The Bells haven’t had a lot to hand down through the generations. My inheritance from my paternal grandparents consisted of a handful of miscellaneous items whose value is purely sentimental- a swiss army knife, a canteen, a hatchet, all probably older than me. This inheritance is really meaningful only as a set of reminders of the characteristics and character of my dear old Grandma and Grandpa. Much more valuable are my memories of them: the Grandpa presiding over huge, chaotic family conversations, imposing disorder and order at the same time by commanding certain stories from certain people and tickling kids without mercy; the Grandma enjoying and disapproving of much of it simultaneously. And one of the best memories is of Grandpa standing at the end of a long table over a huge smoking vat of bubbling brown root beer, just hanging around as it slowly self-carbonated and shewing away the kids looking for a preview.
A patented kid-attracter
Grandpa brewed the root beer every year at the annual summer party joined by both my Mom’s and my Dad’s families. There was plenty going on at the party, but honestly, the root beer solidly anchored at least the first half of the the slate of events for the evening. It was not just some drink (as evidenced by the fact that Davis has already extolled it here). It was sort of a living thing with a presence all its own. The big white bucket that held it was faintly translucent, revealing the dark profile of the thing lurking under the loosely placed lid– a seething opaque presence roiled by dry ice bubbles, exhaling fog far too ominous for a bright July twilight. You could sneak up on the table and inhale the steam, and get a fake root beer buzz that made you cough back into the giant vat. You could try to sneak past Grandpa with a little foam cup and get the first sticky sample from the little black tap at the bucket’s bottom. Best of all, you could just hang around watching the thing going through its tempestuous metamorphosis, and listening and laughing at Grandpa’s jokes, even the ones you didn’t understand.
Then at some moment that could be divined only be grandfatherly intuition, it was done. The signal was perceived instantly by every kid under the bowery, and within minutes the group’s collective blood sugar spiked hard. The concrete under the bucket turned sticky and brown, and soon most kids could be heard walking across the cement with sticky smacking sounds from repeated trips through the puddle. The root beer keg was the center of the party for the first hour, and grandpa was always there, just behind the root beer.
I grew up a little, and went on a mission to Portugal. There is no root beer in Portugal. The Portuguese who have tried it say that no one there likes it because it tastes like medicine. I can only imagine that long ago some doctor mixed up a medicine to taste like root beer as a way of getting little kids to like the medicine, and that by some weird stroke of luck, the medicine became hugely successful in Portugal, while root beer never did. Now, the whole country has been innoculated against the taste of root beer because some medicine everyone had as a kid had that same taste. Missing root beer, I wrote home for some root beer extract. I’d dump it in a bottle of European sparkling water, only to find that adding sugar to carbonated water causes a geyser reaction, making me lose all the extract I’d added. I finally discovered liquid sweeteners over there, and became a kind of missionary root beer bootlegger, always a secret flask at hand. My requests home for more extract became so frequent that Davis still thinks it’s funny to mock me for it. He never wrote home for a small piece of his grandpa to keep with him on his mission, so he lashes out at people who did. (Kook’s version of this was writing home wishing he could still undress in public, the main thing he and Grandpa had in common).
The perfect missionary accessory. Now you can carry your root beer IN your Bible!
Grandpa died the Spring of ’07, a few months short of the summer party that year. I expected to be sad about missing out on the root beer, but still looked forward to the get-together. When I got there, though, there was a huge thermos at the end of the head table. Tell-tale wisps of white carbon dissolved down its sides just before several little kids could inhale them. My dad was manning the root beer station. He used updated equipment, (there was no translucent visibility), but the stuff was still just as sticky sweet, and I still drank just as many cups as I did when I was fifteen. So Dad took over the legacy, and his root beer is just as good, though it doesn’t have that subtle taste of cranky eccentricity it always had when I was a kid. Maybe it’s the big orange thermos he uses now, but Dad’s root beer doesn’t seem nearly as mysterious as Grandpa’s either. But the kids still hang around to watch the dry ice perform.
Less foreboding, but better insulated
Last weekend I was in charge of putting together a party at the park for some Church people. The first decision I made was that there would be root beer on tap. I got the recipe from my dad, in an exchange that felt like a coming of age ritual. Lucy helped me stir all the sugar into the tap water before it was carbonated, and then she dumped the whole bottle of black extract in and watched it stretch out in tendrils and take over the water. When I tossed the big squares of dry ice into the bottom, she shrieked and jumped up and down and had to go get the other kids. They stood around and listened to the raucous bubbles, and startled when I fanned a big cloud in their faces. Molly was entranced by the smoke and the way my hand half disappeared when I stirred it made her nervous. We took it to the park and set it up at the end of the head table, and people drank a ton of it, and Rex said it was good but it was soooo cold. It was slush by the end of the night, and there was enough to take home and keep in the fridge. But the kids didn’t want the pitcherful. They kept sneaking out to the back deck and sticking their mouths under the tap of the big thermos for the really cold stuff. I sat and told them jokes while they bent over to drink it, and even Molly laughed at the jokes she didn’t understand.