Kyle on Tab
Do you drink soda as a communion, or as a meditation?
Soda is a major part of my family’s traditions. We commune over sugary drinks. We all love soda: both my parents, all five kids. We bond across red and blue lines (Coke, Pepsi). For holiday meals, Mom doesn’t ask for food preferences, she asks which drinks to stock.
Early on, Dad spent obligatory years teaching us how soda rotted teeth (put a tooth in a glass of Coke on top of the fridge, which only seemed to come out cleaner and larger) and then let nature take its course. I remember my childhood filtered through coke bottle glasses: massive Mountain Dew cylinders at my aunt’s funeral, Christmas vacations with tables covered in empty cans and board games, tall glasses in the heat of summer yard work, and cherry sacrament in loaded Idaho hot tubs. For the Bensons, a gas station fountain soda paired nicely with every occasion.
Mom participated in those soda rituals—with Diet Coke maybe (a little Mr. Pibb on top, or lately with coffee in it), or Speedo water (which she loved deeply during its short life). She isn’t that picky; none of us are. But if she had a choice: she was drinking Tab, from the can she brought in her purse.
Back in October, Coca-Cola announced it was discontinuing Tab, one of its oldest brands and first low-calorie soda. In a covid-cut (to cov a phrase) Coke dropped half of their 500 brands. This was certainly big news (The Journal even did an episode, and exclusive story on it), but not to “Tabbies” (so dubbed on the Tab drinker Facebook groups). They’d been suspecting it since March. They’d been suspecting it since 1982—with the release of Diet Coke. Tab’s death has long been assured. And its devoted, but small, group of buyers have long known they are living on borrowed time.
Mom, along with the other Tabbies, took to Facebook with the news (and poems and tender forms of protest). It didn’t take long before she had recruited an attentive street team of family and friends to sweep up the remaining stock at nearby grocery stores.
The urgency of Mom’s Tab issue intrigued and terrified me. Until recently, I would have characterized my relationship to soda as an addiction (a dewpendency). While petitioning big brands has become a mainstay of the web, unlike when fans of Brooklyn 99 take to Twitter to get more lols from a seventh season with Andy, this felt cruel and targeted. Not collateral damage from the careless cola margin managing machine; but an acute attack on an aged population of loyalists. What’s more: I’ve never met a Tab lover who isn’t my mom (so, tautologically, all Tab lovers are my mother!).
If pressed, I could sommelier my soda pairings: light fruity sodas early in the day or with salty meals, dark sodas for evenings or with sweet meals. But Mom loves Tab without qualification. Still, if pressed, she will describe its grotesquely chemical flavor (some theorists believe Tab stands for Totally Artificial Beverage) as pure bliss. I’ve always understood it as an experience that defies translation. Maybe that’s just the nature of a guilty pleasure. Some things are loved because they’re shared, and some are loved because they’re withheld.
Like with the Cubs (okay, pre-2016 Cubs!) there’s an underdog element to Tab that prevents it from holding up to regular scrutiny, or comparison. Tab isn’t abundant: it isn’t loved culturally, commercially, or critically. It isn’t found in gas station soda fountains, or stores in general. Tab isn’t a scarce commodity, Tab hardly exists.
As a kid I wanted to like what my mom liked, wanted to show my taste buds were adult. But, I didn’t like Tab. I wondered if one day those Tabbie taste buds would grow in and reveal my unique bond with my mom. But they never did grow in—even after I started to full-on adore the bitter taste of Diet Coke. And though I was disappointed, I knew it was coming. Not liking Tab was the correct experience. It was true to Tab’s nature.
Us kids watched it play out many times. A scruffy neighbor kid would ask to try it. Mom was cordial, erring on protective. If the kid said he liked Tab, that was fine. It felt nice, like he was being civil. Maybe the kid truly respected a taste that was not universal. Maybe he was brought up right, taught to respect his elders. But more often, 9 times out of 10, the kid took a single sip before visibly realizing he would never again allow Tab in his mangy mouth.
And that was the correct reaction. Anyway, Mom didn’t seem interested in connecting over Tab. With me, or any sorry neighbor soda mooch. Still, perhaps out of politeness, she would set the scene for these Tab new comers by pulling from a portfolio of pop culture references (Michael J. Fox getting rebuffed for ordering a Tab in Back to the Future, Bart Simpson cracking one open on the ballet floor). Not as a sales pitch, or justification for her taste. No. As a wink, an inside joke, a quote from a book she knows few have read and fewer will remember. She wants you to know: the jewel of Tab is around, has been around, and appreciated, if only you knew to look for it.
Lately, those winks feel less subtle. The peculiarity, the novelty, the fun, has worn out—has turned to grief. After calling 1-800-GET-COKE to plea for Tab’s return, and finding herself crying to a stranger, Mom explained it as “[she] cries easy these days.” And yes, that’s probably part of it. There’s a lot to cry about lately. But the mystery there, the shock and the longing is what finds me here—writing this piece. For many drafts, I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say. I think largely because I experience Tab the way many of you do: I don’t really get it. I’ve been a close observer, but never on the inside—I hope that part is clear in my writing. For the things I don’t know, I thought it was about time I just ask. So I sent an email, she responded quickly (within 35 minutes).
How would you describe the way that Tab Tastes? What does it have that other drinks do not?
Tab is like diet root beer, with lemon and a bite...only better. Only the first sip is good.
Do you hope you’ll stop craving Tab? If so, how long do you think it will take before the craving goes away?
I have quit Tab for 3 years and never stopped craving it. When COVID started and I ran out of Tab and couldn't find it, I was physically ill for about a week and then felt a bit better…but I don't think I'll ever stop craving it. It's the perfect example of “give up all your bad habits on earth because when you're dead your ghost body will still crave all the bad stuff.” Hell.
In the Wall Street Journal piece, Tab drinkers are referred to as “Tabaholics.” How does a word like Tabaholic read to you— playful and fun? Or somber and frightening? Do you characterize your relationship with Tab as an addiction?
Playful and fun. I've called myself a Tabbie and a Tabaholic. Friends in college called me Tabitha. It is an addiction...I can drink a can of it in less than 5 seconds and I instantly feel a reset button. I keep it at school in a fridge and go in there when I'm super bugged or have anxiety and chug one down. You'll never pick up a half full can of Tab around me. I don't put it down until it's gone.
Coming from a no caffeine household, did drinking Tab feel transgressive? Tell me about how your parents took it.
I first drank Tab at a BYU summer camp that I worked for. An older lady in the kitchen gave me a “cold one” in a bottle. I hid it from my parents forever, then surprise of all surprises they bought me 20 boxes of it during COVID. My mom keeps a box of it in the basement for me now. My mom used to try to convince me not to drink any soda because she said it would leech calcium from my bones. The caffeine wasn't even a conversation we could have.
What’s your strategy with the supply of Tab you’ve got left?
I have 35 boxes of Tab left, thanks to parents, husband, brother, and former students who all brought it to me when they found out that it was going off the market. I have no plans or strategy. I’ll drink it until it’s gone, but I think I might save 1 can for my 60th birthday. Then I will have been drinking it for 42 years.
I remember a period, maybe 15 years ago, when you gave Tab up for a year. Why did you choose to do that?
I gave it up for 3 years (in my memory) but it probably was 1 year. I chose to do that because I was having a lot of health problems (seizures, anxiety, etc.) and wondered if that was harming me.
What caused you to join the Tab Soda facebook group? Is there a behavior in the group, or more widely among Tab drinkers, that annoys you?
I joined the Facebook group so we could spot Tab for each other. My friend actually told me about it. We would let each other know where we could buy Tab. The only thing that annoys me is so many don't have a sense of humor. I suggested we put together a study of ourselves and sell us back to coke telling them that it was worth making Tab again because either: (1) none of us got Covid, (2) none of us had diabetes, (3) none of us had cancer...etc. They didn't like that idea and then I learned way too much about everyone. I like to see how clever the Tabbies are with their sorrows over losing Tab (making clothing, Christmas trees, furniture, jewelry out of Tab boxes and cans).
Did you ever try any of the Tab spin off flavors?
I tried Tab Energy which tasted like V-8 juice and I hated it but loved the tiny can. I also tried Tab Clear because I think it had Calcium added, and that would help with the bone leeching haha!
Do you experience soda drinking as a communion, or more like a meditation?
Not a communion for sure. It alienates me from people. Kids I’ve taught in school remember that I drank Tab and sometimes nothing else. It’s super irritating after working for an entire year of their life to help them and they only remember what I drink. It's not like meditation, it's an addiction. When I used to buy it at grocery stores the cashier would say, “Oh my mom used to drink that!” and now they say, “Oh my grandma used to drink that” so I know that I've been in two generations at least.
How do you feel about the Coca-Cola corporation? Do you have any new feelings about them that you didn’t have this time last year?
I think Coca-Cola is brilliant, even putting cocaine in original Coca-Cola (if thats not an urban legend). They know what they’re doing for sure. I’m hoping they will release “New Tab,” and we can all stay happy. I called them on our “Save Tab” day and the customer service guy was so nice that I cried. He said, “Give me one statement to give to Coke for feedback. What does Tab mean to you?” It just put me in tears. I told him that I have never taught a school year in 38 years without Tab for lunch. I have hauled it in my luggage on airplanes, put it in water bottles to take to church, carried coolers so I could have it at picnics and parties, and so on. I said it was like an extension of my hand. I couldn't believe I was that sentimental, or maybe it’s because he was nice.
After a long bike ride to Treasure Island last weekend, over coffee and sandwiches, Steve of the newsletter told me about how happy he is to not understand coffee. He was drinking a Topo Chico, I was slurping a massive iced latte. That soda addiction I mentioned earlier? Coffee and seltzer are what killed it. As I readied a response, images from my coffee journey over the last four years flashed before my eyes: Alyssa, laughing over the phone as I raved about Almond Joy creamer (“no duh, you’re drinking a candy bar!”); scanning the menu of a cafe in San Jose and blindly picking an Americano because it sounded, well, familiar; learning how to make a pour-over with Matt and Kelly at our studio’s tiny coffee station; and, one of our few Covid escapes, taking a walk down the hill to the Bicycle Coffee stand at the Lake Merritt Farmer’s Market each Saturday morning with Emily.
I understand, a little bit, how difficult it is to translate a love. Love contains multitudes. Even with (universally beloved) coffee, and to (universally beloved) Steve, I’m satisfied to disagree. “Yes, Steve,” I might have said, if pressed, “to me, that grotesquely acidic flavor (some theorists believe COFFEE stands for Completely Optional Flavor For Everyone Everywhere) is pure bliss”.
When the day comes that coffee gets discontinued, and I’m forced back onto Fizzer to swipe for a new drink, I hope I’ll be as cool as Mom: drinking it until it’s gone, saving a cup for my 60th birthday. As George Saunders put it: “When your lover dies or leaves you, there you are, still yourself, with your particular way of loving. And there is the world, still full of people to love.”
Thanks for reading this edition of Kyle-on-Kyle. Until next time, the Kyle goes on.