Root beer and respect
Nov. 7, 2016
by Ivan Raconteur

I was sitting out on the stoop the other day basking in the golden glow of another glorious autumn evening, thinking about root beer.

Perhaps it was the accumulated stress of this horrible election season. Maybe it was despair brought on by the increasing hostility between neighbors that has dominated the headlines lately. Cops killing citizens. Citizens killing cops. No one listening to anyone whose viewpoint differs from their own.

Whatever the cause, I found myself yearning for a simpler time.

The root beer about which I was thinking is not the kind available at the local convenience store or grocery emporium. It was the kind we used to make in the house where I grew up.

We didn’t drink much soda in those days, and making our own was rarer still. But every so often, when my folks were feeling especially sporty, we made a batch of homemade root beer.

We made it in large pails, using extract, water, and sugar. Then, we transferred it to bottles and allowed to carbonate.

Pop bottles in those days were made of glass, not plastic, and the kind we used were 32-oz. bottles with screw-on caps. We transferred the uncarbonated root beer into the bottles, screwed the caps on, and then sealed the tops with melted wax to make sure they were airtight.

The bottles were then transferred to a dark, quiet place to allow carbonation to take place. Towels were placed over the bottles, because it was a rather volatile process. Sometimes, if too much sugar had been added in the finishing stage, or if the storage area was too warm, some of the bottles would explode. This added an element of adventure to the process.

Finally, after carbonation was complete, my folks would haul out a bottle or two for us to drink.

We had a large family, so we only got a few ounces each, but it still seemed like quite a treat.

It wasn’t until many years later that I studied the science of fermentation and experienced the joy of brewing beer and making wine in my own kitchen, perhaps inspired by those early days making root beer.

Today, I believe there is a trend to make soda at home, but it involves special equipment and forced carbonation using little CO2 canisters, and it lacks the adventure and style of doing it the old way.

We made our own ice cream in those days, too. Not often, of course, but every now and then, Ma would drag the ice cream freezer off a shelf in the back porch, and we would make some ice cream. We put an assortment of real ingredients in the center container, and packed ice and rock salt around it. There was a crank to turn the paddle, and we took turns cranking until the separate ingredients magically became ice cream. Then we would sit around the living room enjoying the fruits of our labor.

It seems we did a lot of things by hand in those days. Popcorn did not come in pre-measured paper bags to be heated in a microwave. We never had a microwave in that house, nor a dishwasher.

Popcorn was made on the stove in a heavy pot. It was necessary to keep agitating the corn while it popped to keep it from burning. We made huge bowls of popcorn and doused them liberally in melted butter and salt.

That was in the days before the medical community convinced us that everything we ate was going to kill us.

My trip down memory lane, as I sat there on the stoop among the falling leaves, may have been motivated by nostalgia for the treats of days gone by, but I think it was more than that.

We didn’t all agree back then, just like we don’t all agree now. The difference is that back then, we could disagree and still have a civil discussion, and maintain respect for the other person. I’m not sure we can do that now – or at least, we don’t seem to.

Maybe technology is part of the problem.

In those days, most of our discussions took place face-to-face, rather than through the electronic anonymity of a computer, tablet, or smart phone.

We treat people differently when we have to look them in the eye, rather than hiding behind a screen.

It’s not just the big issues, either. Even over small differences of opinion, people today seem to generalize, categorize, and label anyone who disagrees with them as an idiot, an instrument of the devil, or both. Suddenly, anyone who doesn’t see things our way doesn’t deserve to live.

It hardly seems possible, but some of the exchanges I have seen on social media between “friends” are more vicious and divisive than the political ads on TV.

This is a troubling development.

Diversity of opinion makes us stronger. It helps us learn and grow. It’s when everyone starts thinking exactly the same way about everything that the trouble starts.

I’m not sure I would want to go back to the days of homemade root beer even if I could. But I would welcome a return to a time when people treated one another with some degree of respect, and there were minimum standards of conduct by which most people chose to live.

We aren’t going to agree on every issue, and there’s no reason we should. But, unless we remember how to get along and treat each other as people, we’re all going to be in trouble.

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