When I was 14, I had the best job a curious girl could ask for: soda jerk.

McClelland’s Drug store was in my tiny home town’s informational ground zero. Gossip poured from the regulars perched atop swiveling, red-topped stools in front of the speckled Formica counter as effortlessly as the carbonated water poured from its arching chrome dispenser. I, the aspiring journalist, got schooled in separating fact from fiction as I parsed the hearsay and managed the flow of the 16-cent sodas served in contoured Coca-Cola glasses.

“I heard your cousin Matt is saying he swerved to avoid a deer before landing his shiny new Chevy in the ditch last night. Really, a deer? More like he didn’t avoid the ‘one for the road’ before leaving the Men’s Club, I’d say.”

“I’m pretty sure Henry (the high school teacher turned principal turned school superintendent) won’t convince Town Meeting to pass his school budget on Tuesday night.”

“The Gangell girl is going to hit her 1,000 points on Thursday, they say.”

“I read somewhere the bottled soda industry is turning out to be a both a health and environmental hazard.”


OK, that last question was only in my own head, a likely reaction to a couple of things bubbling up around me at the time. My mother limited our family of seven’s at-home intake of soda to equal shares of one (two-liter) bottle of generic cola per week. The debate around the bottle bill in Massachusetts was pretty heated in 1983. Early rumblings about the impact of high-fructose corn syrup on a body and carbon dioxide (the gas that makes soda effervescent) emissions’ toll on the environment were, to make a bad pun, already in the air.

Christine Burns Rudalevige strains freshly made cran-rosemary vanilla syrup to remove the berries and herbs.

And there was also something we in the jerk profession called “Soda Suicide.” When a brave patron ordered one, I pumped into the glass a squirt of every flavored syrup on offer – cola, grape, orange, cherry, strawberry, vanilla, cream and root beer – to create a dark sludge that left room enough for a only a few ounces of soda water. It was rumored to put a person on a sugar high, which then crashed into a sugar coma. It’s a practice the on-line Urban Dictionary explains is still alive and well at self-serve soft drink dispensers in fast food establishments across the country.

I didn’t then, and don’t now, partake in soda suicide myself. Then, my go-to combo was a judicious mix of two parts cherry to one part vanilla syrups, with lots of ice that in the end melted into the heavy syrup in the bottom of the glass. Now I find a better health and environmental balance in producing my own simple syrups made from more sustainable sweeteners (raw sugar, honey and maple and birch syrups), garden herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil, mint and lemon verbena), seasonal fruits (cranberries, apples, citrus and frozen berries), edible flowers (lavender, elderflower, lilacs), interesting roots and rhizomes (ginger, lemongrass, turmeric) popping up in local farmers markets, and staple spices and extracts (vanilla, black pepper, cinnamon) that I find in my kitchen.

Before you deem the practice too Martha for your busy schedule, hear me out. Simple syrups are just that: one part sweetener to two parts water boiled for a minute so the former dissolves into the latter and then simmered for 8 minutes to reduce the mixture by one-third. To progress to infused simple syrups, just add a combination of flavorings in a quantity that equals about one- quarter of the syrup. For example, if you’ve got two cups of syrup, add about 1/2 cup of finely chopped flavorings. My top combinations at the moment are Cran-Rosemary Vanilla; Maple–Lemon Zest–Thyme; Honey-Ginger-Orange Zest; and Birch Syrup, Apple Peel and Black Pepper.

Ingredients for cran-rosemary simple syrup.

Once you’ve added your flavorings of choice, let the stuff steep for about an hour so the ingredients get to know each other well. When you’ve got a minute, strain the cooled syrup into a clean glass bottle or jar and label it. Simple syrups can be stored in the refrigerator for about two weeks. They don’t generally go bad in a food poisoning sense, but the sugars can crystallize as they settle. You can bring a crystallized syrup back to life by boiling it for a minute and straining it once more before using it.

To make homemade sodas, add as much of the flavored syrups to carbonated water as suits your taste. There are a couple of considerations regarding how a soda drinker gets her carbonated water. The carbon dioxide pushed into the water to make it bubbly is the same gas that ultimately contributes to global warming. But drinking carbonated water doesn’t necessarily add to greenhouse gas emissions because the CO2 is typically captured as a byproduct from another process already being conducted along the food production chain and bottled for this purpose.


Sparkling water drinkers can either buy their bubbly in recyclable bottles or use any number of at-home carbonation systems from companies like Hamilton Beach, KitchenAid, Primo, SodaSparkle and SodaStream. These companies contend their systems cut down on how much plastic is in circulation because the systems ship with reusable bottles and refillable CO2 canisters. Whether or not the price tag, which range from $50 to $250, makes sense economically or environmentally depends on how much soda water you drink.

Regardless of the water, DIY flavored syrups are certainly cheaper and more sustainable than buying packaged syrups and powders these same vendors offer to raise the flavor of your bubbly.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at cburns1227@gmail.com.

A pot of cran-rosemary vanilla syrup after cooking – but before straining.


Organic vanilla beans must travel a long distance from Madagascar to my kitchen so I suck the life out of them once they get here. If I scrape the seeds from a bean for custard, the spent bean goes into a pint jar of organic sugar to flavor it for recipes like this one.

Makes 2 cups flavored syrup


1 cup vanilla-scented organic sugar

1/3 cup finely chopped fresh or frozen cranberries

2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary

Combine the vanilla sugar in a medium pan with 2 cups water. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, reduce the heat and simmer until the mixture is reduced by one-third, 8-10 minutes.

Remove from heat, stir in the cranberries and rosemary, and set the syrup aside to steep for at least an hour. Strain the syrup into a glass jar and store in refrigerator for 2 weeks.

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