By Lise Funderburg
You’ve just ordered a roti from one of central Brooklyn’s ubiquitous Caribbean restaurants and slathered it with hot pepper sauce. Now, how do you put out the fire? Inside the beverage cooler and next to the ginger beer sit a variety of colorfully labeled drinks that seem to be intended for just such a moment. Some are the hue of Worcestershire sauce, others a sludgy beige. All claim to be “real Jamaican” or “Jamaican-style” and are made and bottled right here in Brooklyn. But what are they?
If, like me, you didn’t grow up with these unusual root drinks, finding out requires investigation. Having conducted a profoundly unscientific survey, including a long walk around the borough and a taste test performed by whichever friends I could round up, I can now provide some answers.
First, the drinks’ purpose: according to the Groundation Roots Beverage label, the desired effect is metaphysical — “Know Your Roots & You will Find Yourself!” Mike Bearam, owner of Sprinkles restaurant on Myrtle Avenue, says it’s physical. “They’re supposed to give you energy and to clean the system out,” Bearam says. Sprinkles carries two brands — Groundation Roots, which Bearam particularly likes, and Ital Roots, another savory concoction.
Ronald Davidson, M.D., a self-described culinary anthropologist whose office is in Crown Heights, affirms that these Brooklyn brews, based on folk recipes from Rastafarians in the Jamaican mountains, are mildly effective.
Dr. Davidson partly attributes the efficacy of local brands to their fermentation, which he says makes the herbs biologically active and thus different from such health-food-store staples as herbal teas. But are root drinks intended for medicinal purposes or merely as refreshments?
“It doesn’t quench the thirst,” says Keith Souden, manager of A Royal Production, which has produced a root drink for seven years. “But it does give you a lot of energy…For men it’s also very good for stamina.” Is he talking about sex here? “Yes,” he says. Does it really work? “Yes, it does,” he says with conviction. “Trust me, it does.”
Dr. Davidson concurs — sort of. “Yes, it is an aphrodisiac,” he says, but only in that it gives you pep. “If you want to expend that energy in a sexual way, so be it. If you want to jump up and down, so be it.” But when reggae star Fabby Dolly endorses root drinks in “Peanut Punch,” it’s pretty clear he’s not talking about jumping: “Baby Joe’s got the motion, peanut punch got promotion.”
Suddenly, new light is shed on the names of both the drinks and the bottlers. Stamina Productions has a label adorned with two flexed, manly arms. Juices Enterprises offers Double Trouble, and Front End Lifter and Magnum Explosion Combination: A Thicker Flow Guaranteed. And then there’s my personal favorite, a peanut punch called Agony.
So what’s in these bad boys? Based on information supplied by seven local manufacturers, the clear brown tonics are typically brewed from about 16 herbs or roots, including such familiar plants as sassafras, hops and dandelion, as well as those less commonly found in Brooklyn, like strong back, poor-man-friend and nerve wisp. The thicker drinks are made with a base of Irish moss, a dried sea plant which in its purest distillation resembles a clear gelatin (or, as one of my panelists said, “Tastes like water; feels like clams”). A few roots also go into the thicker drinks, as do milk, peanuts, ginger, molasses and bananas. “Tastes like a milk shake,” said a second, approving panelist. Other varieties seemed medicinal, some like hard cider or West African palm wine, and some — redolent with hops and molasses — were considered by my testers to be overly bitter.
For whatever reason people have chosen to consume the drinks, they’re doing so in increasing numbers. Keith Souden says his company now sells up to eight hundred cases per week, mostly to people here in New York but also to customers as far away as Bermuda. Patrick Brown, head of Juices Enterprises, has outgrown the two storefronts he rents on Buffalo Avenue and is scouting for a new location. Business has multiplied since Brown turned to juice production in 1987, after he found that working at Duane Reade wasn’t exactly fulfilling his immigrant dreams.
“I had come here for a better life, and it wasn’t the kettle of fish I’d thought,” Brown says. He decided to make root drinks, which he’d occasionally brewed in Jamaica. Here, his first target market was soccer players. “I’d go with my Igloo and my ice to the football games at Buffalo Park,” he explains. This eventually led to bulk orders from local restaurants. He made his early deliveries by bicycle, with his cooler perched on his shoulder. Now deliveries are made by van.
Meanwhile, Brown is researching pasteurization — all the root drinks included here are currently unpasteurized and thus have short shelf lives. “My main goal is to get into supermarkets,” Brown says. Pasteurization would help and could introduce new audiences to that special energy which they can spend, as Dr. Davidson suggests, any way they like.