Brainiac On Banjo #041: It’s Not Easy Drinking Green

If you’re from the Midwest or you’ve spent some serious time there, you are about to understand why I am expanding the meaning of the phrase “pop culture.”

I had just turned 11. I know this because my Uncle Irv took me to Normie’s deli for lunch, and it was next door to Weiner’s Drug Store where I purchased Superman #149, “The Death of Superman.” Yup, that’s the way fanboys organize our personal histories.

I told Uncle Irv I wasn’t very hungry and he suggested I just order a plate of french fries. I didn’t know you could do that, so I was thrilled I didn’t have to waste stomach-space on stuff that inadvertently might be healthy. He then asked me if I ever had a Green River. I didn’t know what that was, so he ordered me a glass. Green River was – and remains – what we in the Midwest call “pop.” Some southerners call it “co-cola” (even if it’s Pepsi), and folks out east call it soda. That annoys me – in my world, “soda” has ice cream in it. Seeing that New Yorkers look down their nose at all things non-New York, I refer to the substance as “soda pop.” They scowl, but they don’t complain. Not if they know me.

It turns out a Green River is a lime soda, tasty if you like lime soda, or, if you’re not driving, lime rickeys. However, the drink itself is bright green – if I worked for Crayola, I would have named the color “Irradiated Green.” Green River looks like it was drained from a beaker on the set of Svengoolie… and what 11-year old boy wouldn’t be drawn to an irradiated green soda pop?

This substance was the product of necessity. In 1919, awaiting the implementation of America’s most embarrassing mistake prior to the 2016 presidential election, the formidable Schoenhofen Edelweiss Brewing Company of Chicago started messing with various original forms of soda pop to replace their locally-beloved beer. Their brewery was near a branch of the Chicago River, and that might have inspired the name “Green River” even though, back then, said river hardly was green.

About a dozen years later, legalization of a watered-down beer preceded the repeal of Prohibition and Schoenhofen went back into alcohol-related endeavors. But Green River was a top-seller, so they continued pumping out irradiated green pop. Post-war (for you young’uns, that’s World War II) advances in shipping and the white-flight to the suburbs allowed Anheuser-Busch to flood the world with Budweiser and that started to choke off the small, independent breweries all over the nation. Schoenhofen got out of the beer racket in 1950, but Green River lives on.

In case you’re curious, Green River pop was not named after the dyeing of the aforementioned Chicago River for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. The city didn’t start doing that until 1962, about eight months after my Uncle Irv turned me onto the soft drink. However, both Green River and, for a couple hours, the downtown portion of the Chicago River are just about the same shade of irradiated green.

It’s still available at many Midwest mega-marts, and some of the more elite (you know, expensive) shops across this great land sell it along with other specialty sodas: Moxie – which often is confused with battery acid, Dad’s Root Beer, Big Red, Cheerwine, NuGrape, Faygo… it’s rather amusing how much adults will spend on childhood nostalgia. Whenever I drive back from Chicago, roughly three times a year, I load my SUV with local foodstuffs for myself and my New York friends. This includes Dad’s, Vernor’s (a cousin to ginger ale), and, of course, Green River. I have no choice: for three decades, my pals and gals have expressed their desire in no uncertain terms. That stuff, Jay’s Potato Chips, and Vienna hot dogs: the makings of a great nostalgia rush.

I provide this service gladly. The first hit, as they say, is always free. As for me, well, I’ve got low blood sugar so instead of murdering people, a chilled glass bottle of Green River keeps my legal bills down… somewhat.

Green River might be the only good thing that came out of Prohibition.