My parents are research scientists and their work took us to the US when I was growing up. When we moved back to Hungary, on July 16, 1993, I saved a can of Coke on the plane home. I drank it yesterday.
No long-term plans for the Coke that day. I was sad to leave America because I’d grown to love it. The flight back home was one of the first long-haul flights I remember and what serves as a purgatory of boredom for an adult was a fascinating microcosm for the 12-year-old I was. Movies, Crayolas, the Atlantic 35,000 feet below, icebergs, single serving sugar, single serving cream, single serving Coke. I squirreled away a teaspoon and the can of Coke. My strongest memory from that afternoon is the airport expressway in post-Communist Budapest, small and confining after the vast expanses of America, gray, forlorn, decaying. I promised myself that I won’t have much to do with this place if I could help it.
I wanted to drink the Coke when we got home but I never did. It sat in my room for years and it moved with me when I moved out of my parents’ house at 18, then it moved eight more times over the years, then I was no longer 12 but 32 and I popped the tab yesterday afternoon and drank it.
It tasted magnificent. Compared to a can of fresh Coke bought immediately before, it’s a light brown, opaque liquid, but it tasted wonderfully clear, citrusy and fresh with none of the cloying aftertaste of high fructose corn syrup which plagues modern Coke. We also tasted it against Polish import Coke, made with sugar if you can believe the list of ingredients on the can, and my wife Natalie, a supertaster who hasn’t touched Coke since it’s made with corn syrup, compared them:
There is so little difference between Polish Coke, made with sugar, and Hungarian Coke, made with HFCS, that I suspect Polish Coke is either laced with saccharine to foul the taste, or the Cokes differed in temperature, or made-with-sugar Coke is actually not made with sugar.
20-year-old Coke is the soda I remember from growing up. A touch citrusy, zesty, wonderful.
So yeah, it was insanely great. This is what things tasted like before the maize industry took over the world. They say Coke in sugarcane-rich Latin American countries still tastes this wonderful. I should know. I was in Argentina two years ago and I drank Coke but I don’t remember.
It’s hard to untangle the experience of drinking 20-year-old Coke. It tasted like The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. Where is the line between a clear, tangy, sugary soda and the sharp realization that this will be the last taste from my childhood that’s not a memory, that an unknown but significant percent of my life is over.
To end on a high note, here’s a funny photo my mom took of me, my brother and my dad, two weeks before I acquired my can of Coke:
We look like dorks!
Photos: Peter Orosz. Gif: Gergo Vas.