Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Word Nerd Sez: S is for...


It's really hot outside, so I'm thinking a lot about cold drinks. Iced tea and lemonade are always good, as are certain carbonated beverages. Root beer is a favorite of mine, and I know it's sometimes called sasparilla or sarsparilla; at least, that's what I remember Yosemite Sam ordering whenever he walked into a bar.

Now, the word sarsaparilla itself comes from the Spanish, a compound of the words sarsa (bush) and parilla (little vinve) and refers to various prickly vines of genus Smilax that are native to the Americas. But is it really the same as root beer? I searched the internets to see what I could find.

The answer is yes and no. Sarsaparilla was originally brewed from the Smilax plant, while root beer had its origins in the sassafras root and was sold as a medicinal drink. But many "sassparillas" were developed that used Smilax and sassafras (sassafras + sarsaparilla = sassparilla), along with other flavoring and a whole lot of sugar. Depending on the formula, root beer/sarsaparilla could also have additional flavorings, including (but not limited to) anise, cinnamon, clover, corn syrup, ginger, honey, vanilla, wintergreen, and yucca. So according to the very informative Encyclopedia Rootanica, the two drinks are essentially the same.

Now that my curiosity has been piqued, I was thinking it might be fun to try and experiment with brewing my own sarsaparilla ... except the FDA discovered in the '30s that sassafras root is a carcinogen and it's illegal to sell it. All root beers today are made with "root beer extract," which is made with artificial flavorings. There's no point in going old-fashioned if you can't go whole hog, so I'll just have to enjoy a frothy concoction someone else has brewed and bottled for me. I think a root beer float is in my near future....

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