A version of this piece first appeared on Civil Eats
My dirty truth is that I have a collection of Coke bottles from around the world: one from Mexico, one with Arabic script, one covered in unrecognizable lettering and filled with Yugoslavian beach glass (a present from a friend who traveled there with her family in 1990 and brought it back as a present for me). And on and on. I was a teenager when I gathered them, and totally oblivious to the implications behind this international menagerie of emptied glass. This drink was everywhere, tailored slightly through variations in local water and variations in bottle size, but ultimately the same. I loved that I could find it anywhere: the great unifier.
Michael Blanding’s book, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink, aims to tell the real story behind that happy global picture of people who speak different languages and have different color skin but sway arm in arm singing songs and drinking Coke. He tells Coke’s story from the beginning, starting with the beverage’s origins in 1886 as a snake oil tonic and extending all the way up to its present incarnation as a multinational beverage corporation.
It’s a measure of my tremendous cynicism about corporations that more of this book didn’t shock the pants off of me. The story of the company’s early days, carving out an identity and working to convince the public that this refreshing leisure drink was a necessity, was captivatingly told and a great example of how iconic brands are built. In Coke’s case it was built aggressively with a focus on growth and led by unprecedentedly well-funded advertising campaigns.
Market growth is It for Coke, and Blanding chronicles how the company’s desire for growth eventually led them to bottle tap water, add some secret minerals and corner a whole new market. After all, there is a limit to how much soda one person can drink, right? Actually, that limit might be higher than you expect. One of the more troubling accounts in the book is of a town in Mexico called San Juan de Chamula, where newborns are fed Coke in their bottles, and locals worship their Saints by downing ritual glasses of Coca-Cola and leaving cola offerings at church altars. As one local guide explains it “Here Coca-Cola is cash, poison, magic, passion, pleasure, torture, love and medicine.” But not everyone has welcomed Coke’s presence.