If you’re new here or haven’t been able to pick it up from the previous posts or my “reading list”, I’m fortunate enough to be a southerner. As a child, and certainly young adult, I might not have been quite so “grateful” to have called myself one but, as I’ve grown older, and learned more about my own foodways, I’ve discovered a vast appreciation for my culture and people below the Mason Dixon.
As a child, I rode around in a very long and bright silver Mercury Grand Marquis with my Grandpa on my dad’s side. It had red velvet-like interior and spoked caps. He paid cash for it as he did all of his cars. It was the top of the line model of that car with electric windows and locks and a cassette deck that he kept full with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder and Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, among others. (Think Ricky Skaggs with his impeccable mullet here. Not necessarily the well dressed and coiffed present-day Skaggs that sometimes sings alongside the beautiful and magnificent Alison Krauss.) I remember hearing that high pitched pluck of mandolin strings and the twangy percussion of a rolling banjo as it swirled around the cabin of his car and eventually out the half rolled windows as we rode around the downtown of his home and back into his driveway. As an adult I’ve come to be hyper aware of how hot summers are but looking back at them as a child, I can’t recall temperature at all in my memory; instead I remember only the bluebird skies and pillow-like clouds floating above that all brick ranch on Chestnut Street that he’d built with his own hands. I remember the distinct appearance of a grease stained craft paper sack that contained still-warm footlong chili dogs lying in the floorboard beneath my dangling feet attached to legs too short to fit flat against the floorboards. I remember how comfortable that car was and how long. I remember being unsure about bluegrass music and what the appeal must’ve been to my grandpa. Popular music was something my mom’s car played. She and my grandpa couldn’t be any more different in that way.
I remember my grandpa spending time in his garage-turned-workshop where he made doors or fixed this or that for an on-going carpentry project. I remember a rickety old refrigerator out there that was round like cars from the 40s and 50s with a big chrome handle shaped similarly to a hood ornament from a car of a similar era. When it was opened, there was a freezer section visible at the top–with enough space to hold two or three zipper bags of ice or a handful of ice cream sandwiches. One or the other, not both. On top of the metal shelves, and lit below that single bulb, my grandpa kept sunkist orange sodas and sometimes NeHi grape, a personal supply for when he needed a cooldown or, perhaps as often, when he wanted to share one with a grandson. There was a several gallons glass container of water he kept in there–I can’t seem to remember any cups though, and a couple or three small to mid-sized Ball-Mason jars with a clear and slightly viscous liquid I’d come to drink long after my grandpa passed. Those mason jars were emptied one at a time to drown the memories of his tours at War, pulling dead, dying, or wounded from the fields of Nazi Germany as a field medic in WWII. He ran with terror from those images the remainder of his life. While he didn’t die in a field surrounded by the pure violence of war, the war killed him anyway–much more slowly and with less intention than a bullet from a stranger’s gun.
From time to time, I’d open that refrigerator door, or stand to the side while he opened it for me, and see the blue green glass bottles of RC Cola present in small numbers alongside the other sodas and lidded jars in that old fridge. I remember how loud but perfectly it hummed along there in his shop, covered in a layer of old wood dust and losing paint from the years of sitting near the door to his shop and exposed, however slightly, to the elements feet away. RC was something of a rare treat then, something I remember experiencing as a child more than once–enough to want to write about it as an adult, but not something more than a treat–something not quite special enough to have on a birthday, but something instead to make an occasion out of a run-of-the-mill Tuesday if you get what I mean. Unlike the NeHi’s and the Sunkists–those were drank without accompaniment–the RC always–always, had a partner.
I think I’d had most every flavor (save all the new-fangled ones the Cracker Barrel seems to be peddling) as a kid–the chocolate, the regular (vanilla), and, my personal favorite, the banana. They were awfully delicious at room temperature or even slightly cold (especially on a hot day), but were particularly special if they’d been left on the dash of my grandpa’s Grand Marquis long enough for Bill Monroe to howl about the color of the moon in Kentucky–tucked in the space that’s both windshield and dash. The marshmallow loosened just enough and the icing softened the cookie to the place between ooo and goo, something similar to a just underdone s’more–the texture that only happens when you “accidentally” set fire to your marshmallow instead of roasting it. Busch league.
I realize there’s folklore that exists in the nooks and crannies of most every culture around the world–some of them charming, some terrifying, lots in between. Perhaps the Moon Pie/RC Cola thing has become something of folklore in my own personal story but I don’t remember much from my youth that’s more special than those two things, side by side, leaning on that worn doorway between inside and out in the driveway of my grandpa’s house as a child. I remember how cool the thick, blue-green glass bottles felt in my tiny hand and how the bottle quickly grew slippery as condensation ran from the top to the bottom over my sticky-with-melted marshmallow fingers as I held that bottle. I’m certain chasing a banana Moon Pie with a cold as ice RC Cola these days would do nothing more than conjure up the nostalgia of being a child–hearing the sounds of a waving flag in air scented by the smell of both drying laundry swaying on a twenty foot clothesline and the smell of summer vegetables growing from damp soil just beyond where I stood. Food is interesting that way, and so powerful.
I’d not thought of RC Cola or Moon Pies much at all in the last twenty years. I’d not spent time alone, replaying the pages of my youth, instead paying more attention to my career and my savings, and the things that society binds us to as adults. I walked past a display in a Mast General Store in western North Carolina, and my youth came bubbling up like a dropped soda opened before allowing it time to settle. On a farmhouse table set just inside the main door off the main road of that little town, was a perfectly assembled display of that green-blue glass and the red and blue “RC” with a Moon Pie draped over the top and hanging shoulder height above the label facing everyone stumbling past. It was similar to a hotel door tag you place when you want to “sleep late” (or whatever those things are for) but held a smaller than normal marshmallow and cookie sandwich and that brilliant logo of a golden crescent moon in perfect slumber. It was modern packaging for an ancient product in an old is new sorta way–the way old general stores remind us of things we used to know by selling it to us as adults for more money we remember paying in our youth.
When I started to write this story, I wrestled with whether to tell the history of the pair and how unlikely either and both were in the first place–let alone how they came to identify an entire class of working people during a not so prosperous economic time in our past. I wondered if I should flip through my signed copy of the “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” that’s holding up books by Ludlow Porch and Edna Lewis, Rick Bragg, and William Faulkner, to the page(s) about Moon Pies and RC and regurgitate the words from those pages here so you could all know more about these strictly southern treats from the early 1900s American South. I wondered if, like so many things, the history of how my memories from the middle 1980s were ever allowed to be would be more important than the memory itself. After all, coming to know why we eat the way we eat is really the most important part of the story for me. Most of the time.