It’s-It and Mexican Coke
The first thing I noticed about San Francisco when I arrived ten years ago was its weird self-congratulatory spirit: Oooh, look at me, I’m San Francisco, I’m so great, la la la! As soon as I arrived, the city—or, as the Examiner absurdly calls it, The City—bombarded me with messages about how lucky I was to live in the world’s most livable spot, the antidote to the American cultural wasteland, the best place for news in the best place on Earth. And meanwhile: the newspapers were terrible, the theater was terrible, and there was nowhere to eat after eleven (OK, there were three places, but you get sick of eating at the same three places all the time). It’s a pleasant, comfortable, vaguely bohemian midsized city—a viable rival to Portland or Austin—with ridiculous delusions of grandeur. It’s like a little girl who believes there was some kind of mix-up at the hospital and really she’s a princess.
I even managed to get annoyed by the restaurants, which are the one unarguably awesome thing about San Francisco. What does it mean, I said to everyone who I hadn’t said it to already, to spend your life in a city with great restaurants and lousy newspapers? What does it say when the things you put in your body are so much more important than the things you put in your head?
There were two things going on here: (a) this is all true, and (b) I was in my mid-twenties, the time when you stop getting stronger every day and start getting weaker and you have to make your peace with that, and very few of us are enlightened enough to make their peace without a fair amount of complaining about things that may be true but are not the real problem. But if you’re lucky, while you’re bemoaning the Bay Area’s culture of civic narcissism you find things that make you happy in spite of yourself, and now I’m moving to Brooklyn and wondering what I’m going to do when I can’t get an It’s-It or a bottle of Mexican Coke.
There are people who have lived here for years who haven’t bothered to try an It’s-It because they think it’s an inferior local Häagen-Dazs bar. In fact, the It’s-It is a superior local Häagen-Dazs bar. It harkens back to the first half of the twentieth century, when prepared food products varied by region and people in Chicago drank different sodas from people in Cleveland. Some of these sodas were celery flavored, and it’s hard to argue with the evolutionary logic that saw them die out in favor of 7Up, but some of them were probably amazing, and we’ll never know.
The It’s-It consists of a scoop of ice cream between two oatmeal raisin cookies, enveloped in a coating of chocolate. It’s one of those deceptively simple flavor harmonies that provides a sensory illustration of the principle of gestalt, like a BLT transposed into the key of dessert. The secret, I think, is the tiny hint of salt in the oatmeal cookies. (Ice cream is better with salt is one of the crucial lessons of adulthood, maybe the most important one.) There is something winningly unyuppie about the It’s-It. It’s not premium ice cream double-dipped in a thick layer of luxurious Belgian chocolate or any bullshit like that, and yet the chocolate is unwaxy and palpable enough to satisfy the need for a chocolate kick, and the ice cream is rich enough to cool the chocolate down, and the whole thing makes you think that maybe the era before Häagen-Dazs and ubiquitous espresso had some delicious things to offer, just as the dance steps your grandparents used to practice had a sexiness all their own.
There are four flavors of It’s-It available: vanilla, chocolate, mint, and, because we live in a debased era, cappucino. (Bonus fact: the plural of It’s-It is They’re-Them.) The one to go for is the vanilla, which is the way George Whitney invented the It’s-It in 1928. There is a possibility—one that I have left open by failing to do any research—that George was descended from Eli Whitney, who 135 years earlier had invented the cotton gin. If that’s true, George’s accomplishment outshone his great-grandfather’s: the cotton gin caused the Civil War, while the It’s-It caused only pleasure.
If this were a dessert that you had to drive to a special place to eat, you’d eat it once a year and look forward to it. In San Francisco, though, it’s available on any corner for a buck twenty-five, and so we tend to take it for granted instead of eating one every week or so like we should.
Likewise: Mexican Coke. You can get it in all reputable taquerias and the better convenience stores. It comes in old-school green glass bottles and costs about $1.35, and it tastes the way you remember Coke tasting in your childhood. There’s a reason for this, one that gets at the dark vein of hypocrisy that runs through our poor nation’s mixed-up heart. In the early 1980s, the Coca-Cola Company discovered that it made unassailable economic sense to change the vaunted secret recipe of their flagship beverage, replacing the cane sugar with high-fructose corn syrup. (This wasn’t the short-lived switch to New Coke; this was a whole different thing.) The corn-syrup switch saved Coke billions a year—not because it’s cheaper to grow corn than sugar cane (it isn’t), but because the Department of Agriculture pays farmers in electorally key midwestern states for their surplus corn. The federal government is buying votes, perverting the free market, and fucking with the taste of Coca-Cola. In our whole sordid history, from Tammany Hall through Teapot Dome to all the various -gates, has there ever been a scandal more intrinsically un-American?
In Mexico, happily, Coke is still made with cane sugar. It tastes like American Coke, but purer, without that rusty mouthfeel. It tastes the way Coke is meant to taste. And in San Francisco, stalwart taqueria proprietors import it from Mexico to cater to their discerning immigrant clientele, who remember very well what real Coke tastes like and are willing to pay a premium for it. The spirit of America is alive and well, and we’re busy building a 2,000-mile fence to keep it out.
Mexican Coke, and the It’s-It, and beyond them: the cart on Mission Street where they sell sliced mango with chili powder, and the Tamale Lady, and Memphis Minnie’s, and Burger Joint, and Delfina, and Dottie’s, and so many others: in these quiet, delicious ways, San Francisco lives up to its absurd, idealized self-image as a headquarters for love, freedom, and quality of life. I will miss it.
This is the last Edible Complex column, so indulge me for a second. Three years ago Paul Reidinger asked me if I knew anyone who might want to write a food column, and I sort of pointed to myself while making little throat-clearing noises, and he let me do it, despite my total lack of qualifications, and it turned out to be the best job ever. Thanks to him, and to everyone who wrote (even the ones who corrected my Spanish), and to the restaurateurs who have dedicated themselves so nobly and successfully to making me happy in spite of myself—especially the artists and heroes at Taqueria Cancun on Mission at 19th. My appreciation for their work has been limited only by the walls of my stomach.