a sweeter side of appalachia:

surgecanThis morning, my friend Lusy stopped by my office with a nasty cold and a warm, sixteen ounce can of Surge; I gladly hugged him. As he sat the Christmas-colored can of heavenly proportions on my office desk, I thought to myself, “There it is.  My childhood is sitting on my desk.” Waves of memories flooded my mind. I closed my eyes and remember frozen nights spent sipping Surge by the fireside even as the frost formed on our shivering backs.  I recalled the punch drunk pleasure of all-night binge gaming sessions, playing Diablo II with now-lost friends and my seemingly endless supply of Surge cans. There were days and nights spent by the lake or long drives through the mountains, happily listening the clinking of Surge cans in the trunk on the drive home. Mom and dad, if you are reading this, know that I was one of the good kids. I steered clear of strong drink in my youth, save that Surge was my indulgence, my constant companion, and my can of choice. These happy times slipped by too quickly, much like my affaire de cœure with a certain highly-caffeinated citrus flavored soft drink.

For those of you who missed it, Surge flooded Appalachia in the late 90’s. I always thought of it as capitalism’s silent way of trying to wean the region off its long-standing Mountain Dew addiction. Coca-Cola designed Surge to help crush Pepsi’s grip on the yellowish-green soda market, going so far as to call Surge MDK (Mountain Dew Killer) during its development stage. Historically, they had good reason to target Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew has strong roots in Appalachia, getting its start in the 1940’s in Marion, Virginia, as well as Knoxville and Johnson City, Tennessee.  Borrowing its name from a regional sobriquet for moonshine, Mountain Dew’s first mascot was a hardy Appalachian stereotype: the barefooted hillbilly. After being turned down by Coca-Cola in the 1940’s, Pepsi finally purchased the rights to Mountain Dew in 1964. The rest is history, as they say, but in Appalachia it is certainly a toothless history.

A depressing list of studies demonstrate Appalachians are losing their teeth sooner than should be expected, and our love affairs with soft drinks is partly to blame. Fair warning: I’m going to get academic for just a moment, but stick with me. Busy researchers Gorsuch, Sanders, and Wu (2014) recently reported that Appalachians have higher levels of tooth loss than the United States average. The talented Michael Hendryx and his colleagues (2012) noted that tooth loss is especially high in rural mining counties in Appalachia, and that this level of loss cannot be explained by poor access to dentistry or fluoride. Working with the Appalachian Regional Commission, Denise Krause and her colleagues (including the brilliant sociologist, Lynne Cossman) thoroughly examined tooth loss in Appalachia between 1999 and 2006, finding that on average, a quarter of Appalachians over age 65 have had all their teeth extracted, and almost thirteen percent of Appalachians 34-65 had six or more teeth removed. Brian Griffith (the WV School of Medicine Brian Griffith, not to be confused with the similarly named dog on Family Guy) and his colleagues seal the deal with their 2011 study documenting that Appalachians are at greater odds of drinking sodas than non-Appalachians. Although Appalachian folk love our sodas, soft drinks (and, well, meth) have taken a nasty toll on our smiles. Btw, these are all snappy things you can use as conversation starters at your next dinner party.

My own Appalachian love affair with the tooth-killing fizzy mistress (my brand new catchy moniker for  good ol’ soft drinks) runs deeper than my family’s East Tennessee well. Flash back to my childhood: the fierce bite of a red can of Coca-Cola on a Saturday afternoon or the greasy blend of Coke and Lee’s Famous Recipe fried chicken by the mountain stream. I remember my grandmother kept a second refrigerator filled with Cokes in the back room. For whatever reason, she kept this fridge much colder than normal, lending the soft drinks within an icy shimmer as they swished in your mouth and sailed down your throat. I remember my irrational, finicky preference of Coca-Cola over Pepsi, and rolling my eyes when offered a Pepsi because I was a Coke drinker. I caught the wave. Today, I stand before you a veteran of the in senseless, costly war between New Coke and Coke Classic. I am a survivor of the campfire Coke can explosions, Mentos in Coke two liters, and avid follower of Max Headroom’s Cokeology. Coke is part of my culture and my socialization as an Appalachian, making it also part of my self-construction.

But then came Surge: that sweet identity-driven drink that defined my transition from child of the 90’s into an angry and fierce-eyed young Appalachian male. I purchased my first cans at Louisville Square, purveyor of fine gasoline and overpriced sugary snacks since my childhood. (Btw, they don’t have a public bathroom, so don’t bother asking.) In my mind, I can still vividly see the flashy green and red Surge label on the shelf. It reached out and shook you by the head. It said “drink me and be someone new.” Oh, the lies, the lies. But I took that twelve pack home with me, and had my first taste in the parking lot. I was in love. I remember the unique blast of citric acid and maltodextrin, and that subtle soupçon of bitter grapefruit on the back of the tongue. I remember feeling awake and alive in that moment, my future certain, my past forgotten.  I felt I was living in the present, an empowered Appalachian with can in hand.

My friends likewise embraced Surge in those wonderful days. Surge cans sat sans jugement as we shredded on undersized amps, struggling for the words to describe our rancor for the cultural limitations of growing up Appalachian. Surge kept us vigilant during intense Dungeons and Dragons sessions, a response to rural boredom and a somewhat socially acceptable way to address our misplaced anger. The fact that Surge cans can stand in as a dragon or other large creature on the game map is a bonus, but it is also a distraction from truly changing our conditions. Like so many Appalachians, we were in stasis, even while buying into the frenetic hype of a soda can’s marketing machine. I will say that Surge did follow me to my first attempt at college, but only briefly. Had it lived a bit longer, perhaps Surge might have sponsored my dissertation or even supported the New Appalachia revolution, televising it on the Super Bowl or that nifty new thing called the Internet.

Surge went immediately silent with its discontinuation in 2003 following soon after the merciful death of the Extreme 90’s. Despite my close relationship with Surge, I was not invited to the funeral. Like some Confederate mountain guerrilla hold-out, I learned of the surrender after the fact. I recall that I walked into that same greasy smelling gas station, Louisville Square, a dutiful dealer who carried Surge until the very end, to buy my Friday night supply of Surge. Staring at the shelves where my mistress had sat for almost a decade, I saw only Mountain Dew and Fanta. Like a lost child, I looked to the clerk in hopes she might reunite me with a loved one. She said softly, “no más, no más.” Her unintentional allusion to Roberto Durán sticks with me, even today. It was the end of an era. That night, my friends and I drove silently through the mountains like a funeral procession headed nowhere, the clunky din of empty Fanta cans rattling about the trunk.

Despite its untimely demise, Surge maintained a vocal and often virtual fan base. As Surge’s days dwindled, a web community dutifully mapped the remaining locations where Surge continued in fountain drink form until even that option faded away. In response to public support for Surge, Coca-Cola created Vault in 2005. As a former Vault drinker, I can say that it had only two of Surge’s attributes: the marketing and the caffeine. The flavor was all wrong. It had a very Sweet Tart-ish flavor, in my opinion, and was not a replacement for Surge. Even the color of the liquid was wrong. I would equate it with replacing tomatoes with cucumbers in a salsa recipe: one might get away with it, but everyone will know something is evidently wrong. Vault met its maker in 2011; few cried. However, this did push Surge fans (now on Facebook) to again press Coca-Cola to reissue Surge. Apparently, it worked. A few months ago, Coca-Cola re-released Surge for sale exclusively on Amazon, leading us back to the present moment and this beautiful, tall can sitting on my desk.

Honestly, my teeth ache just thinking about drinking it. I want to create some special moment to open it, savor this rare time machine moment flashing me back to my glory days for a whiff of the past. And yet, deep in my aging Appalachian entrails, I hesitate to pop that can, if only because I know it is not really a time machine. It’s a marketing scheme, the swirling socialization of a media empire that I loved and continue to love from afar. I remain certain that this canister of Surge will taste sublime and intense and clear like my second first kiss. I will swish it through my canines and relish the fizzle in my throat. Leaning back in my office chair, I will kick my feet up on my desk and conjure up ghosts in my brain while looking at the can. Yet I know it can never be quite the same. Surge kept the same recipe, but I am an entirely different cookbook now. Looking back, I fear I couldn’t recognize that long-haired, brash Appalachian kid struggling to make his way in the world. Nor would he recognize me today, the angry sociology professor with noticeably less hair and even less patience for smart-ass Appalachian kids wasting their talents on warehouse floors and sleeper sofas. Perhaps the only thing we have in common today is an identical full set of teeth, sans cavités, and the Surge cans in our hand.


Photo by author
James N. Maples

James N. Maples

James N. Maples is a musician, applied sociologist, and writer from the foothills of East Tennessee. James presently resides just north of home up in the Bluegrass, where he is a sociology professor at Eastern Kentucky University.