For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for memories of forgotten or lost foods—things that are no longer available, hard to find, or that just don’t taste as good as they once did. Reminiscing about the distinctive packaging, bitter taste and earworm jingle of an almost-lost soft drink, writer Kelly Robinson takes us back to the to the 1970s.
Robinson is a freelance writer from Knoxville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in Mental Floss magazine, Curve and Games.
Waiting for the End of the Tab
By Kelly Robinson
The first time I ever heard the word “addict” was in relation to Tab cola. I was 10 years old, and a neighborhood pal was apologetically explaining why her family’s garage was piled floor-to-ceiling with six-packs of empty bottles. “My Mom’s a Tab addict,” she said.
I had to ask my own mother what the word meant, and she laughed when she learned the context. “It means that someone has to have something,” she explained, “because they can’t live without it.” “I guess I’m a Tab addict too,” Mom added.
The idea that two women in one neighborhood were addicted to a soft drink stunned me. What would happen if they didn’t get it, I wondered? That question, along with the fact that my diabetic mother had declared Tab “off limits” to my brothers and sisters, combined to create an aura around the drink that couldn’t have been stronger to me had the bottles been locked in an antique trunk marked “mysterious treasure.”
I began sneaking Tab at every opportunity, noting the level on every two-liter and quaffing the stuff quickly in my room. Tab had saccharine then, and the bitter taste was almost as tongue-numbing as szechuan peppercorns. While the drink is now flavored with Nutra-Sweet, Tab maintains a flavor unlike any other diet soda—less cloying, boldly acidic.
Now, as an adult, I find Tab to be the perfect match for bourbon, with any other mixer tasting too sweet. But while the drink hasn’t completely disappeared from the market, it has vanished from anywhere social: no vending machines, no restaurant soda fountains, no bars.
To enjoy a Tab, I have to enjoy it at home (via harder-and-harder-to-find cans) making the drinking of it a solitary vice. Gone are the days when, as a child, I drank Tab from a glass bottle (with its signature grainy texture and yellow starbursts) in the public pool and vamped while singing the jingle, “sixteen ounces and just one cal-o-rieeeee” to anyone who would watch.
The forcing of Tab drinkers underground makes it a special moment, though, when I spot a rare kindred spirit. About twice a decade I see someone else make for the obscure corner where the few stores that still stock it relegate their stash.
We make eye contact and look shocked. Then the shock gives way to understanding, as we feel a silent bond. We rarely speak, but when we do it’s about the fear that Tab will disappear completely. We gravely fill our carts with what we worry, every time we shop, might be the very last of our calorie-free nectar.
My childhood curiosity returns: What would happen if we didn’t have it?