Cookie's chocolate soda meets match in Rehoboth

August 31, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

I OFTEN HEAR people chatting about how they search out the best martini, Manhattan or cosmopolitan, an incredible crab cake or even slaw or french fries. I confess to being a chocolate soda devotee, which I think is even more rare than decent Baltimore peach cake.

By chocolate soda I mean the confection served in a classic, tapered soda fountain glass (real glass a must), with a long spoon. Inside is a rhapsody of fountain soda water, a little half-and-half, chocolate syrup and vanilla ice cream. It is not a float, not a sundae, not an egg cream. It is definitely not a milkshake. (Not everyone delights in this version of a soda; I have seen improperly initiated people gag on them.)

Good chocolate sodas were once readily available all over Baltimore. But as soda fountains disappeared from pharmacies, department stores and neighborhood soda and ice cream shops, the chocolate soda went the way of the No. 8 Towson-Catonsville streetcar.

But it wasn't merely a question of soda fountain presence. There was always a face and hands behind that masterpiece.

I think of my own favorite neighborhood mixologist, a woman named Catherine Hudson, known by one and all as Cookie. Cookie had the touch; she could work the fountain controls like a Samuel Kirk silver chaser. Her sodas ruled the taste test at my house.

My grandmother Lily Rose, and her sister, Great-Aunt Cora, could tell the difference between a soda Cookie made and one produced by one of her co-workers at the old Guilford Pharmacy. My family members were tough, at times torturous graders when it came to the treats they liked. Only a few passed the soda test; you flunked if you put in too much this or too little that. A good soda is all about proportions. (Don't ask me how to make one; in this case I leave the poetry to others.)

If you needed an emergency chocolate soda, you headed right to Read's, the drugstore chain that once seemed to have a store on every corner. Read's had a pretty wicked soda department; its chocolate syrup was nicely kicky and not intended for taste wimps. As I recall, the prices were right, too.

In the citywide soda competition, the winner was a woman known to me only as Celeste. She stood behind the luncheonette fountain in the basement of Hutzler's, the sadly closed Howard Street department store. Her sodas, which she so artfully dipped and wooshed, could reverse your mood on the bleakest day. They worked restorative wonders if I had a rough day with an editor - or Latin teacher.

I'd visit Celeste. I used to sit back and smile when I'd hear those wonderful words intoned by my waitress, "Celeste, one chocolate soda please." Then, just as I would be inhaling the last excellent droplet of commingled soda water and chocolate, a B&O Railroad train might rumble through the unseen cavern of Howard Street Tunnel built under the bed of the street the store faced. It was a truly Baltimore experience.

I'm in a pretty good mood these days because this summer I have savored four excellent, perhaps perfect, chocolate sodas. Their maker was Scott Fornwalt, a former commercial fisherman who presides over the much appreciated Royal Treat on Wilmington Avenue, alas, 114 miles distant in Rehoboth Beach, Del., not exactly around the corner.

Scott, who also makes some smashing breakfast pancakes at his family-owned restaurant business (breakfast only, then the fountain opens in the afternoon and evenings until Sept. 30) learned his soda recipe some years ago. No wonder there is frequently a long, long line at his classic soda fountain. Not so many people know to order a soda; most are content with cookies-and-cream and some chocolate sauce.

Sometimes I get a little annoyed when customers at a coffee shop order complicated confections involving vanilla syrup or mocha or steamed milk. The counter workers dutifully mix and deliver. I don't begrudge these people their dose of caffeine, just as I don't complain when I see the marvelous array of premium, butterfat-heavy ice creams available at grocery stores. I just yearn for that elusive chocolate soda.

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