/ALEX IDOV/ //SPECIAL FOR THE AJT//
Two years before my great-grandmother was born in the beautiful southern city of Atlanta, GA, John Pemberton was busy introducing his new flavorful and fizzy concoction – and lucky for us, a concoction that would one day become kosher…. The year was 1886, and Pemberton, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War and pharmacist by trade, had recently created a non-alcoholic drink to replace an alcoholic coca-wine “tonic” he had been selling for medicinal purposes (non-alcoholic due to restrictions imposed by the Prohibition). Originally, he sold his new creation as a medicinal drink at a soda fountain at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta. It soon became the world’s favorite soft drink: Coca-Cola (or CoCola, as pronounced by true-blood Southerners), instead of a medicinal tonic and found its way into the homes (and hearts) of many Americans with the advent of it’s bottling in 1891.
But it wasn’t until 1935 that the popular drink would become kosher. Rabbi Tobias Geffen, then leader of the Orthodox Jewish community of Atlanta (and Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, where my father’s family were members), had received inquiries from Rabbinic leaders around the United States as to whether the drink was considered acceptably kosher. Although he lived in the city where the Coca-Cola Co. was (and still is) headquartered, he was unaware of the answer and inquired within the company for knowledge of the ingredients. The company shared the drinks top-secret ingredients( though, not the exact recipe) with Rabbi Geffen and he ruled that due to the small amount of beef based glycerin in the drink, it was not considered kosher to the standards of the Orthodox community. Wanting to gain the kosher market within the Jewish population, Cola-Cola tried to find a substitute for the non-kosher glycerin and was fortunate to find a coconut oil and cottonseed oil based glycerin, produced by the Proctor and Gamble Company. The Coca-Cola Company replaced the beef based glycerin with the oil based one and Rabbi Geffen approved the beverage kosher certified. And the best part of this whole deal is that one doesn’t have to give up drinking Coke for Pesach (Passover).
While the recipe for Coca-Cola contained ingredients which were by-products of grain (and therefore not kosher for Passover), Coca-Cola chemists found that by substituting cane and beet sugars for those derived from grain, and they could continue producing coke which would be acceptable to drink on Passover, without significantly altering the cola’s taste. Every year the Coca-Cola Company continues to produce a special “Passover run” of Coca-Cola made according to this special recipe (this run can be easily spotted by its yellow cap bearing an O-U-P symbol). This special run of Coca-Cola has proven to be extremely popular outside of circles of people who keep Passover, as many people like the taste of this formula better than the one produced year around (hence the new craze of importing Coca-Cola from Mexico).
Thanks to Rabbi Geffen’s research and involvement with the Coca-Cola Company many kosher consumers have been able to enjoy Coca-Cola for the past 80 years. I once asked my father, who remembers Rabbi Geffen from his childhood, if Rabbi Geffen’s leadership of Orthodox Jewry is still remembered in Atlanta. He answered that unfortunately, those whose lives were affected and touched by Rabbi Geffen’s religious guidance and leadership are now very few and the younger generation does not seem to know of him. It is a comfort to think that while many may not know or remember the impact of this illustrious Rabbi on the Atlanta community, his impact on the world of kosher will always be remembered. As for the rest of us, the recipe for the world’s favorite soft drink still remains a well-kept secret.
Alex Idov is a kosher food blogger who runs the award-winning site ‘Kosherology’ and a regular contributing food columnist to The Five Towns Jewish Home magazine. He is currently studying for his bachelor’s degree in Culinary Sustainability & Hospitality. Visit ‘Kosherology’ at www.exploretheworldofkosher.com and like ‘Kosherology’ on Facebook.