How did Appalachia become stereotyped by a popular beverage?
A little over a year ago, I became obsessed with the concept of shame.
For me, beginning to think about (and talk about) shame as an emotion was like searching for a word that’s been on the tip of your tongue for ages and then comes to you like a thunderbolt in the middle of washing dishes or when you’re nodding off to an X-Files rerun. Exploring it was simultaneously deeply cathartic and like sticking my hand in an emotional meat grinder.
Over a series of months, a perfect storm of books, lectures and wee-small-hours conversations revealed to me—like peeling back the layers of an onion (weepy eyes and all)—that the feeling I had called so many other things (embarrassment, pigheadedness, discomfort, willfulness) was shame at its core.
It also became clear fairly quickly that a lot of my shame coalesced around one thing: my relationship with Diet Mountain Dew.
For those who have never had the pleasure of sipping an ice cold can of Mountain Dew, you’ve probably only heard talk of its vices, of which there are (admittedly) many. Even if you might not crack open a bottle in your lifetime, I encourage you to take a moment and imagine a highly carbonated, nose-tickling bubble and a tart-sweet, citrusy flavor that’s similar to a church picnic punch on steroids.
Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, Mountain Dew ...was not a novelty, not an ironic goof—just simply a way of life.
Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, Mountain Dew (and its diet counterpart, my beverage of choice) was an omnipresent force, its signature emerald-tinged, translucent 20-ounce bottles filling up coolers at backyard barbecues and littering the weed-lined backroads. My teachers drank it, my doctor drank it and prisoners would drink it while picking up the littered roadside bottles. It was not a novelty, not an ironic goof—just simply a way of life.
When I moved away from home, it became very clear that I should be ashamed of drinking Diet Mountain Dew (my parents and I still lovingly abbreviate it as "DMD" in text messages). Even today when I discuss drinking it in public, people look at me incredulously as if waiting for a punchline. I’ve never once had someone without deep mountains connections place a hand on my shoulder and say, "Me too, sister."
This level of judgement has only heightened from year to year as I’ve settled into a career as a food writer. I’m someone who people think should—in so many words—know better. I’ve worried that I won’t get work, that I will be perceived as less intelligent and qualified because I occasionally enjoy a soda that’s lambasted as the scourge of the soft drink earth. In the eyes of so many people, there’s no room at the table for consumption of the irony-free profane.
As a defense mechanism, I’ve become a trivia expert on the most esoteric facts available about Mountain Dew so I can titter them off as a nervous shield. If there’s a pop culture reference about DMD you need to know—including that bopping Lana Del Ray jam and its brief mention in a recent Paul Muldoon poem—I’m your girl. For a time, I thought I could head the scolding off at the pass by making fun of myself first or displaying some arcane knowledge.
That approach never really worked.
Would people feel as open to chiding me or ribbing me about the drink if I were a man? Probably not. Would people feel like they could tease if I didn’t have a fleck of twang in my voice, if I didn’t slide deeper into my mountain accent after a couple of drinks? That’s definitely a no.
My consumption of Diet Mountain Dew ensures that I’m served a double shot of shame—complete with Backwoods Barbie stereotype—on a fairly regular basis.
At this point, I should probably make this clear: I’m no Mountain Dew apologist. Nothing great will ever come from consuming yellow dye #5. It has no nutritional value. It is wickedly acidic and (if you’re drinking the less aspartame-influenced variety) highly caloric. It is "not good" in a decidedly unsexy way, the way other corporate Frankenstein creations like Ho-Hos and Combos are easily tossed into the furnace of public scorn. It’s not even, really, an acceptable guilty pleasure. I would probably get fewer dirty looks if I snorted a couple of lines of cocaine every day.
It is, however, a drink that—for better or worse—ties me to my home.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, elegantly summed up my decades-long tug of war with how Mountain Dew relates to my identity in a recent interview.
"Whenever we feel shame, it’s a mark of some deep investment or deep internal struggle. But what I hadn’t thought about before…is how the shame is also always pointing to some kind of conversation, some kind of argument that’s happening."
For me, that argument continues to manifest itself on both a personal and interpersonal level. For my mountain home, shame surrounding Mountain Dew has become a rhetorical touchstone that’s somehow come to shape the country’s perception of life in modern day Appalachia. In both cases, it’s a prickly briar patch of fact and lore jumbled together.
As if I was living in some sort of divinely staged cosmic play, my theoretical interest in shame came home to roost shortly after my exploration began one Sunday afternoon at home in New Orleans. Sitting at my kitchen counter with DMD in hand while my then-boyfriend concocted an intricate lunch, without lifting his eyes a gauntlet was thrown: "You have to stop drinking Diet Mountain Dew. It’s gross."
At first, I hee-hawed and rolled my eyes. Why would this kind of line-in-the-sand stance about a beverage come hundreds (er, thousands) of cans into a relationship? Shouldn’t he have flown the coop at the first pop-a-top? How could I feel ashamed in my own house? Did he really just tell me what to drink?
... no food stuff is more personal to me, more deeply burrowed into my sense of identity than Diet Mountain Dew.
Then, I knew I should’ve seen it coming. He was unhappy. I had been traveling too much, and when I was home, I was still distant. Shameful or not, no food stuff is more personal to me, more deeply burrowed into my sense of identity than Diet Mountain Dew. It’s not just a beverage—it’s a portable sense of home. Picking on Diet Mountain Dew was a surefire way to get my attention and cut me to the quick. It was, in his eyes, a more intimate, longterm partner than he had become.
Years before when visiting my hometown for the first time, we took a stroll down Main Street and passed a teenager with a freshly sprouted goatee in a cut off t-shirt carrying a case of Mountain Dew atop his shoulder like a mounted bazooka.
"Oh, wow," my boyfriend remarked, a little awestruck. "That guy! He was just carrying a big case of Mountain Dew." I said I hadn’t really noticed as he shook his head. "So this really is where you get it from."
In the kitchen that day, Mountain Dew was used as a stand in for a harder conversation about our waning relationship that we had been dancing around for months. In more national conversations, it often seems to take up this stunt double role, particularly when addressing rural poverty.
While Mountain Dew’s target audience today might be neon tank top wearing bros and skateboarding teenagers, my Appalachian demographic—namesake and all—were the original consumers.
"Mountain Dew" is a centuries-old mountain slang term for moonshine ... initially crafted as a mixer for whiskey in the early 1930s.
"Mountain Dew" is a centuries-old mountain slang term for moonshine, which Tennessee-bred creators Barney and Ally Hartman found fitting because their bubbly elixir was initially crafted as a mixer for whiskey in the early 1930s. It was hot potato’d around through several bottling companies before eventually being sold to Pepsi in 1964, and nationally marketed.
Today, there’s a Mountain Dew to suit every taste—from Code Red (cherry) to Baja Blast (lime)—and enough generic knockoffs with names like Mountain Lion, Mountain Lightning and Mountain Holler to really put an exclamation point on the rural connection.
More recently, what’s driven home the jerry-rigged wiring between Mountain Dew and Appalachia is the use of the phrase "Mountain Dew Mouth" to describe the poor oral hygiene habits in the area which have led to widespread gum disease and tooth decay. Originally coined in the (poverty porn-laden) 2009 Diane Sawyer special, Children of the Mountains, the phrase has been recycled over and over again throughout the national media in spurts over the past six years.
The phrase is inherently noxious. Each time I hear it, I feel angry—angry and ashamed.
No national news outlet, it seems, cares to shine a real light on the deep and profound problems (drug wars, economic stagnation, post-coal mine environmental havoc) facing the area that causes people to place their health on the backburner and, more often than not, fall on the crutch of unhealthy food and drink.
... Appalachians are portrayed as individuals who are unable to get out of their own way ... problems caused by excessive Mountain Dew consumption.
The seemingly relentless desire to perpetuate negative regional stereotypes (rotting teeth! no shoes!) is completely exhausting. Time and time again, Appalachians are portrayed as individuals who are unable to get out of their own way—the kind of people who must have change enacted upon them in order to better themselves. Story after story presents tightened regulations and banning the purchase of soda with food stamps as the lone solution to problems caused by excessive Mountain Dew consumption.
The presentation of a drastic policy overhaul as the solitary option is a little dehumanizing, and fails to take notice of the deeply rooted social norms of the region (read: Outsiders, don’t fucking tell us what to do). Tightening regulations won’t fix an economy so tied to a dying industry that a staggering majority of residents either rely on government aid to eat or are regularly hungry. Lack of accessible medical care is still a reality for thousands, particularly women and young mothers. The problems faced by the region are painfully real, and deserve not to be trivialized or oversimplified in the national spotlight.
Appalachia isn’t a pity case, and Mountain Dew is only sideshow to the heart of the matter.
Figuring out how to chip away at problems so deeply embedded in a region is astronomically much more complicated than a micro lens shot of a single caffeinated beverage.
My dad—a gentle, 30-year lawyer who likes to describe himself as an "old steady sheepdog"—called me a couple of months ago to describe the scene unfolding near his office in my hometown. A heroin dealer has apparently set up a fairly prolific den on his block, a place which once was only home to quaint families, a pocket watch repairman and a hyper-local internet service provider known (hilariously) as the I-Club. My first daycare was just a few doors down.
"Belle, I swear to God, it snowed eleven inches today," my dad sighed. "Nothing is moving here. Then, I look outside, and those guys next door were walking their bobcat out on a rope to go piss in the snow—a fucking bobcat!"
Weeks later, he reported finding syringes in the street. Last week, my tiny county announced the statistics for heroin busts so far in 2015: nine deaths and 76 overdoses in three months.
In the mountains, you can’t look away because there’s nowhere to turn a blind eye.
In the mountains, you don’t look away because you remember when the heroin dealer was a second string quarterback.
In the mountains, you stare death in the face because the latest boy who OD’d played Mortal Kombat with you while slurping Mountain Dew.
When I read numbers like that, I’m immediately wracked with guilt that I’m not there, that I’m not rallying the troops to preserve the tightly knit heritage of the place that raised me. But, like so many, I feel helpless. I don’t really have any answers.
Instead, I try to tell the stories of a town full of people who consider neighbors to be like family, a town brimming over with folks who would drive all night to New Orleans if they thought I was ever in trouble.
The ties that bind know no distance.
Instead, I drink Diet Mountain Dew—swish it around in my mouth, feel it all syrup and fizz—and pray to God I never become a person who gets above my raising. I’d like to think if you cut me open a little Diet Mountain Dew would be right there in my bloodstream, hovering just below the surface, like the homesickness that never quite goes away.