A Southern specialty: Cooking with Coca Cola

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Georgia’s cultural core includes literary heroine Scarlett O’Hara and business giant Coca-Cola. Both are universally associated with Atlanta, where they were created. The ubiquitous beverage remains one of the planet’s most recognized and protected
brands. The formula has been secret since its creation in 1886 by druggist Dr. John Pemberton. The refreshing drink found its way into the hands of thirsty consumers the world over, even becoming a primary ingredient in cocktails like the legendary
Cuba Libre. It was celebrated in the World War II hit song “Rum and Coca-Cola.”

And long ago, Coca-Cola began appearing as a popular ingredient in countless Southern recipes. Many recall their first experience combining Coca-Cola and food during childhood, when a small pack of salted peanuts poured into a bottle of Coke was the perfect after-school snack. Today, famous chefs, cookbook authors and accomplished cooks in small Georgia towns use the soft drink to add taste, flavor and magic to a variety of recipes, including barbecue sauce, Mexican-American cuisine, congealed salads and majestic desserts.Coca-Cola’s appearance in recipes increased as the beverage became more popular. There are reports of handwritten recipes for pound cake in a grandmother’s large-print Bible. Some of the earliest published recipes came from descendants of Asa G.Candler, the company’s founder and legendary philanthropist.

Candler’s great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth Candler Graham published a fascinating array of recipes in “Classic Cooking With Coca-Cola” (Celebrity Books, Nashville, 1998). Her recipes and anecdotes, which resonate with authenticity,acknowledge the resources of Emory University, a major beneficiary of Coca-Cola and the Candler family and the repository of priceless Coca-Cola archives.This culinary tradition continues into the present day, as the iconic beverage finds its way into recipes created by some of Georgia’s best chefs.

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Josh Butler, now a star chef, says he decided on cooking as a career when as a teenager he met Julia Child and “she let me kiss her on the cheek.” After serving as the executive chef for three Florida governors, including Jeb Bush, Butler became the personal chef for Atlanta movie mogul Tyler Perry. He is now part of the executive culinary team at country-rocker Zac Brown’s highly regarded restaurant, La Mesa del Sur, in Senoia, and his insight into Coca-Cola’s flavors is noteworthy. “Orange, lemon zest, fennel, pepper, cloves and cinnamon are there, reminding me of great dishes from Spain and North Africa that still influence New World cooking,” Butler says.

Chef Marvin Woods is a high-profile culinary wizard now at Asante, his always-packed downtown Atlanta restaurant near Centennial Olympic Park. Woods became immersed in Georgia’s cooking heritage while starring in the Emmy-winning Turner Broadcasting TV show “Home Plate” and is one of the country’s principal advocates for using health-enhancing ingredients from local farms. Woods, a national leader in combating childhood obesity through better nutrition, has cooked in restaurants in New York, Buenos Aires, London and Miami. His Coca-Cola Low Country shrimp recipe incorporates Southern culinary traditions with new adventures in flavors using fresh ingredients.

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Eighth-generation Georgian and nationally renowned chef-restaurateur Linton Hopkins perfected a recipe for the ages, Coca-Cola Tomato Aspic. His revitalized version of the congealed salad, a traditional Southern dinner staple, features equal parts nostalgia and a remarkable vision of the importance of Southern food for the future. His acclaimed Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta is a favorite of critics. Friends and neighbors know Nancy Lee Smith’s home on Georgia’s Tybee Island as “Nancy’s Restaurant.” Originally from Rome, she describes herself as a “country girl” in her wonderfully useful cookbook, “Cookingon Tybee Time” (Spinx Publishing, 2008). While many chocolate cake recipes use Coca-Cola, Smith’s Coca-Cola Chocolate Layer Cake uses the drink as an ingredient in both the cake batter and icing. Cherie Bates carries on a family practice—which began with her grandmother—of using Coca-Cola in food preparation. “As a child of the ’50s and ’60s,” says Bates, an executive with the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber and Visitors Bureau, “and being the first-born of a large family, dinner was a budgeting and planning challenge for something delicious seven days a week. Coca-Cola marinade became a staple in persuading everyone that we were eating filet steaks, when actually we were eating a much cheaper and tougher cut of meat.”

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She revealed that she marinates seasoned steak for five or six hours in the Coca-Cola mixture. “The marinade masks the identity of the steak.” Making pot roast in a slow cooker ensures a better beef entrée, says Julie Pope, the executive director of the
Heard County Development Authority in Franklin. Having Coca-Cola in the mix, she says, “has made it a family favorite for over 35 years.”

Social Circle’s iconic Blue Willow Inn was immortalized by the late columnist Lewis Grizzard not only for serving, he maintained, the country’s best fried green tomatoes but also for incorporating Coca-Cola into several recipes, including the restaurant’s barbecue sauce, baked ham and roast beef.

A single bite of Cherry Coke Float Cheesecake can make a customer with a sweet tooth exclaim, “Be still, my foolish heart!” according to Susan Catron, who, along with Nikki Gribble, developed the dish in their nationally heralded dessert haven, The
Sweet Shoppe of the South in Blue Ridge. Catron, who has appeared twice on the Food Network and won the sixth season of the show “Cupcake Wars,” says the cheesecake recipe is the result of their commitment to “Southernize everything.”

Chef David Larkworthy of 5 Seasons Brewing Co. in Sandy Springs has developed an exciting, Asian-influenced recipe using Coca-Cola. His Coca-Cola Cured Duck Breast embodies the complexity of savory Asian ingredients and pays homage to Georgia’s legendary beverage.

A retired schoolteacher, Gerda Groff says that she is a “born-again Southerner” after being raised in Kentucky and living in the Northeast for many years. She now lives in Hoschton, near Château Élan, and loves to entertain family and friends. She has a collection of recipes that use Coca-Cola. “I’ve had a lot of fun with those recipes,” she says. “And when someone comments on the ‘zestiness’ or rich flavor, just as with the Coca-Cola formula itself, I’m reluctant to reveal my secret ingredient!”

Dr. John Pemberton would be proud.

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