Dear reader, before I begin this story, I would like to ask you a question: Have you ever had a beef hot soda? I'm sipping a cup of it right now in preparation for the story I'm about to write for your perusal and general entertainment. It's nourishing warmth motivates me to write, and I want to write to you because I love you. I love my readers.

So, have you tried it? What?! Don't look at me like that!

It was not a ridiculous question. According to a 1908 edition of The Southern Pharmaceutical Journal, "hot soda is growing in popularity rapidly." Today, we automatically assume that the word soda denotes a carbonated beverage. But what's funny about hot soda is that it isn't carbonated. According to my trusty November, 1891 copy of American Druggist, hot soda is "merely hot water drawn by gravitation from a receptacle in which it is heated, and variously sweetened and flavored to make a palatable and warming drink."

The key to making a good hot soda, I find, is to make sure you use gravitation. I understand that the temptation to use electromagnetism or nuclear force might arise, but you must resist those inclinations. The middling qualities of gravitation are most suited for this application, delivering steaming water to your cup gently enough so that the cup does not break, but still with enough force that the water mixes the various ingredients in a satisfying fashion.

If you haven't already, why not try a cup?

"Double B Bullion - Half ounce extract of beef; one ounce extract tomato bullion. Place in cup, fill with hot milk and serve with graham wafers, salt and peper [sic]." - The Southern Pharmaceutical Journal

Yes, I'm aware that the above recipe calls for hot milk, not water. It's still a hot soda. Just accept it. It's deliciousness should make that easy.

Now that we've established that, we can begin with the story, which is about Uncle Ray. No, not my uncle Ray (who is a very fine fellow) - THE Uncle Ray.

When most of us go to the supermarket, we don’t stop to think where the food we buy comes from. We look for the cheapest prices, our favorite brands, and the cookie aisle (or I do, at least, om nom nom nom!). That's it. I know I shopped that way for the first 21 pathetic years of my life. But that all changed for me when I met the legendary, and some may say infamous, Uncle Ray.

(As an aside, what's with the Cookie Monster promoting vegetables lately? Am I alone in thinking that this is somehow related to the CIA's Project MKULTRA, which was an illegal human research program?)

OK, so I didn't really meet Ray. Not physically, anyway. No, I have come to know Ray (intimately, I feel) through the motivational stories of his life he had printed on the back of his company's mass-produced potato chip bags (in a chapter format, no less). Uncle Ray's web site (he named the company after himself) explains what it was exactly that inspired him to do that:

"Late one night in 1999, Ray woke up from a sound sleep. He had the urge to sit down at his kitchen table and write about his life's memories. He began to write the first three chapters to the many stories you now read of the back of our products.”

And what stories! Ray has lived a very colorful life, a life that makes his remarkable successes in the amazingly technical field of potato chips seem insignificant in comparison. If you have ever tasted one of his successes in that most prestigious field, you would know that what I just said says a lot.

Some of the stories are on the light side. On one bag, I read a story about how Ray's grandpa gave him some strong chewing tobacco as a little kid to scare him away from tobacco, which apparently worked (in other words, it made Ray feel terribly sick, although I can't remember if he vomited). On another bag, there was a story about how, when he was a chef in the Marines, the other chef he was assigned with put the leftover hash browns from breakfast into the soup for lunch to get back at one of his superiors. His superior had scolded the mischievous chef for having wasted food the day before.

Yet there is a dark side to some of his stories. His stories, Ray feels, can be of great comfort to anyone who has contemplated “suicide [or taking] drugs.” Ray is a reformed alcoholic, and as result, a lot of the stories are essentially fables about self-control. Think Aesop's Fables, but without all of the talking pins and pompous hares. For example, he writes on one bag about the guilt he felt as child when he stole a fresh peach from a neighbor's tree. To deal with the guilt he felt, he told himself that the peach would have rotted had he not ate it, which was probably true. Nevertheless, Ray goes on to conclude:

“So many people, like I did, think that if they have a good reason for doing wrong, then it's O.K. But it is never right to do wrong and never wrong to do right.”

I learned from one particularly memorable bag of chips (I think they were garlic-flavored) that as a child Ray had almost killed a bully on the way to school with a rock. He had thrown the rock merely to scare the bully, whose name was Bobby, but the rock hit Bobby in the head instead. Bobby was wounded so bad he had to go to the hospital to get stitches put in. Rather then hold a grudge, however, Bobby became friends with Ray a week later over a game of marbles. Doesn't that just warm your heart? My cockles are tingling! If only we could all be so forgiving and saintly.

You see, not only are Uncle Ray's potato chips a comfort food, they are source of a greater emotional comfort for me, a sort of divine comfort I only feel when someone shares some of the great lessons of human experience with me. For a moment in time, I am One with Ray. As the sour cream and onion chips crunch in my mouth, my soul goes to an elevated plane of existence where potato chips, love, and mankind are all One. I don't need a six-pack of beer to get me through the night. I have Uncle Ray's potato chips.

I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised when I found that Uncle Ray’s was a Michigan-based company. As a citizen of that holy mitten-shaped state, it made me proud to know that Ray was one of us. It made me want to find out more about Michigan's food and drink industry. As I researched the some of the Michigan brands I had grown up with, like Better Made and Faygo, I found myself fascinated by their stories. It turns out that my state occupies a wildly unique and tasty place in the food and drink industry. Now I make it a point to buy Michigan brands whenever I go to the supermarket (and of course I shop at Meijer's, a Michigan-based company). I want to support the fine companies of this state and the oftentimes remarkable people behind them.

Uncle Ray has changed my life in more ways than I can imagine. The least I can do is buy his potato chips. Maybe you should too, after you drink that cup of beef hot soda.

(The following links are for those who would doubt the veracity of what I just wrote, erroneously assuming that I made stuff up.)

Uncle Ray's
The Southern Pharmaceutical Journal
American Druggist
Cookie Monster curbs cookie habit

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