As I was walking out of Bryant House, the restaurant attached to the Vermont Country Store, I spotted this antique soda fountain. It fits in perfectly with the vibe of the place — the restaurant dates to 1827, the Vermont Country Store is primarily a catalog business that specializes in nostalgia, the attached Bryant House menu serves reassuring dishes like chicken pot pie topped with homemade biscuits, and johnny cakes served in tiny cast iron pans.
Each table is thoughtfully furnished with a catalog, so diners can flip through it and ponder the purchase of an old fashioned candy dessert, say a licorice whip or a Charleston Chews, Chuckles, Mary Janes, Bit-O-Honey. These can be fished individually from glass jars at the store next door of course, and also shipped conveniently to your home should you want to fill a candy dish. Should you actually have a candy dish.
But it was the soda fountain that stayed on my mind. It was an imposing piece of equipment, marble and silver, nearly obscuring the computer terminal which handles the business of the modern restaurant.
Flavored carbonated water doesn’t require such an elaborate set up of course — witness any modern bar or fast food joint — but throughout the 1800s, it became apparent that “glitz sold soda water,” as Anne Cooper Funderburg writes in her essential book on the history of soda and soda fountains, Sundae Best. Accordingly, soda fountains became increasingly elaborate, a visual treat to take in along with a beverage that was also a special treat.
I’m not sure the soda fountain would have stayed on my mind if not for the flavor on the far left of the soda fountain. Along with chocolate, strawberry, wild cherry, raspberry, sarsaparilla there’s “Don’t Care.”
Now, there was a certain heedlessness in the early days of soda. One of my favorite anecdotes in Sundae Best concerns the famous physician Benjamin Rush. In 1773, he enthusiastically recommended the consumption of natural mineral waters or better health. Mineral water from the earth often has a certain odor to it, and the water from a well in a backyard on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia had a pungency that Rush thought was extra beneficial. Philadelphians flocked to it, the well ran dry, and when efforts were made to renew the flow, the source of the pungency was revealed: a nearby privy.
Yummy taste sensation! But that’s not what the flavor “Don’t Care” was, not at all. In those frugal days, “Don’t Care” was where the druggist would pour extra syrup, the left overs after they filled their vanilla or chocolate canisters to the max. The mix must have tasted different each time. I’m pretty sure this is what I would have always ordered, just for the adventure of it.