John Besh’s new retro soda fountain at The National World War II Museum isn’t just charming converts to the ice cream soda craze; it’s also bringing nostalgic smiles to every New Orleanian who ever sat at the K&B counter with a nectar ice cream soda.
There is a long soda tradition in New Orleans. In 1842 The Times-Picayune ran an announcement “To members of the Temperance Societies” heralding the opening of a “Refreshment Saloon” at the Planters’ Hotel. The cost of every item on the menu was a “picayune” – six and a quarter cents. Ice cream, soda water, tea, coffee, chocolate and “Orgeat” were offered as refreshments. Orgeat syrup, a sweetened almond concoction, is comparable to the flavoring agent in nectar sodas. Although current commercial nectar syrup producer Susan Dunham gives credit to the I. L. Lyons Drug Company for locally producing nectar syrup beginning around 1900, it’s possible that the local fountain favorite has, in some form, been around longer than that.
By May of 1848, The Picayune noted that “soda fountains are fizzing away in all directions” and it continued over the years. Prices did increase, however. In 1935, Liggett’s Rexall Drug Store on Canal Street advertised a nectar ice cream soda for 10 cents. By ’47, the soda at K&B was 20 cents, including whipped cream. By May of ‘55, the price had gone up to 48 cents – but that included a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.
Dr. Stephen J. Derbes had his favorite drugstore: “Mayeaux’s – it was right on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Magazine Street.” His favorite soda flavor was “chocolate, and it came in that cone-shaped glass. It was 10 cents.” His visits to that soda fountain were “with the neighborhood gang. We’d go there and we would stay around and read the comic books.”
Jack Stewart, whose favorite flavor was nectar, became a connoisseur of soda fountains around town. “At Arnaud’s Drug Store, on Willow Street and Carrollton Avenue, they served sodas with big metal holders that the glass fit in – a big bell that tapered down. I went to Waterbury’s at Canal and Camp streets. It was old-fashioned. At the Walgreen’s on Iberville and Royal streets, the lady used to add a little bit of crushed ice to make it colder. The Woolworth’s Store on Canal and Rampart streets had sodas longer than the Woolworth’s on Bourbon and Canal streets did,” Stewart says.
“I went to a lot of K&B’s, both the old store and then the new store on St. Charles and Napoleon avenues. The most spectacular was Walsdorf’s Pharmacy, at Dryades and Peniston streets. It was run by George A. Walsdorf. The soda fountain was entirely white marble,” he continues. “It had a pressed tin ceiling, Belgian tile floors, metal soda fountain tables with either marble or white glass on the tops, soda fountain metal chairs. Mr. Walsdorf also made his own cough syrup called ‘Why-cough,’” Stewart remembers.
Perhaps Stewart’s fondest soda memory was also somewhat painful. Belou’s Pharmacy at Marengo and South Liberty streets was a special favorite. “St. Cyr Belou would give you two squirts of syrup, when his associate Mr. Lorio only gave you one,” he says. Near this treasured dispensary of nectar sodas was an inviting, overhanging tree. Stewart climbed up, but luck was not with him. After the fall he was bedridden while his broken bones healed.
Mt. Belou knew just what to do. “He made me this gigantic nectar soda, in one of those big, white, tubular cardboard containers. And that was right when they were closing the store,” Stewart recalls.
Justin Winston admits he once lived for a summer on K&B nectar sodas and hot dogs. His best (and last) K&B soda memory was from a very odd location. “The building where the Contemporary Arts Center is now was the K&B warehouse. However, there was also a drugstore in it – in the middle of this enormous space. They had an operating soda fountain, too.”
Winston had accompanied photographer Clarence John Laughlin to the soda fountain, but not just for the nectar sodas. “He wanted to see his pictures – there were four or five prints of his photographs. He had them made at the New Orleans Blueprint Company and they were enormous – maybe 8 by 10 feet. They were hanging in the warehouse.”
Sodas in New Orleans can lead you to art – or to a quintessential New Orleans childhood memory.
Ann Maylie Bruce’s parents Anna May and Willie Maylie were genial restaurant owners, and also enjoyed their cocktails at home. Ann recalls that “we were living on Napoleon Avenue, I must have been about 4. My aunt came over and she offered to take me to the K&B at Napoleon and Claiborne avenues to the soda fountain.”
As she described the rest of the adventure, “we sat on the little stools and the lady came up to me and asked, ‘little girl, what kind of soda do you want?’
“And I said, ‘Scotch and soda, please.’
“My aunt said, ‘She means chocolate,’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t.’”
They went right home.
Someone had just found the one item they never had on the fountain menu.
Make Your Own Nectar Syrup
(From the Ursuline Academy Parents’ Club cookbook, Recipes and Reminiscences of New Orleans)
The book gives two nectar syrup recipes; this is the simplest:
Cook three cups of sugar in one and a half cups of water; boil 10 seconds. Cool and add one Tablespoon vanilla extract, two Tablespoons almond extract and one-half teaspoon red food coloring. Pour an inch of syrup in a glass, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and club soda. Serve with whipped cream and a cherry on top.