Depending on whom you ask, Big Red tastes like cream soda. Others insist that it's strawberry, cherry, cotton candy or bubble gum.
But for Catarina Sigerfoos, it tastes like the summer of 1970.
Sigerfoos grew up in San Antonio. She remembers drinking the iconic soda on the sky ride over the city's Sunken Gardens and trying not to get Big Red on her church clothes after Sunday services.
"I don't drink sodas," says Sigerfoos, who moved to Austin almost 20 years ago. "Big Red is the only one."
Her uncle, Randy Garibay, a pioneer in Chicano blues, paid tribute to the iconic San Antonio pairing of barbacoa and Big Red in his signature song, "Barbacoa Blues."
"I went down Nogalitos, looking for some barbacoa and Big Red," he sings, referring to the Tex-Mex-lined street in San Antonio.
Garibay died about a decade ago, and Sigerfoos, a longtime vegetarian, doesn't eat barbacoa anymore, but she says that any time her family gets together now, Big Red is there, too.
Big Red turns 75 this year, and despite a nationwide push for healthier eating habits, the bright red soda that was invented in and still manufactured in Waco is aging well. (The concentrate made there is then shipped to bottlers across the country.) In 2009, corporate headquarters relocated to Austin.
Though still synonymous with Texas favorites barbecue, barbacoa and Juneteenth, the statewide holiday celebrating the end of slavery in Texas, Big Red can be found in 43 states now. Even though soda sales are down overall 4 percent, Big Red is up 7 percent from a year ago, says Big Red vice president of marketing Thomas Oh.
"There's just this passion for Big Red," Oh says. "We have people that paint their cars big red or get tattoos. You don't see that with Sierra Mist or 7-Up. It's unbelievable."
Despite increased distribution, the biggest market for Big Red is San Antonio, where Big Red and its offshoots, including Big Peach, Big Pineapple and Big Blue, outsell all the drinks in the Pepsi portfolio, Oh says.
Last fall, the company relaunched the diet version of the drink as Big Red Zero. "We'd been using outdated sweetener techniques and it didn't taste much like Big Red," Oh says. They reformulated the drink and did a big marketing push that led to a 40 percent gain over the previous diet version.
The company, which was recently honored with a Texas Treasure Business Award from the Texas Historical Commission, has a fervent fan base online, especially Facebook, where almost 150,000 fans from around the world post everything from pictures of themselves (or their kids or their dogs) drinking Big Red to recipes for Big Red pancakes.
In sharp contrast to other big-name soda Facebook pages, Big Red's page, managed by Austinite Becky Ozuna, isn't simply pushing content created behind closed doors at the headquarters. (Though their recent "Don't Tell Mom We're Doing Experiments in the Garage" YouTube video is pretty funny.)
Ozuma shares pictures and videos from all over the Web of people enjoying or sharing the drink, such as a recent image from San Antonio native Lee Barrera holding a can of Big Red on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Spain.
Because so many service members are either trained or stationed in Texas at some point, the drink is sold in many of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores in the Middle East, and you'll find plenty of stories on the Facebook page about families shipping 12-packs to family members stationed abroad. "It's a little slice of home for people," Oh says.
Cynthia Smith McCollum can't drink Big Red without thinking about her hometown of Bryan, or her dad, who introduced her to the drink.
"We never had Kraft Mac and Cheese or soda or anything like that growing up. It was all homemade," she says of the food they ate during her childhood in East Texas. "But my dad loved Big Red, and it was the big treat. Nine times out of 10 times, if I was drinking soda, it was Big Red with my dad."
When she was a student at the University of Texas, she burned herself out on the soda by drinking a can a day from the Big Red vending machine in Kinsolving dormitory. These days, she'll enjoy it every once in a while, but only with barbecue.
"It's crazy sweet, but it has some acidicness that's not at all citrus," she says. "The acid bite cuts the fat of the brisket or sausage really well, and the sweetness balances the smoke."
The sweetness of Big Red certainly balances spicy, savory foods, but that bright, sugary flavor has long been used as an ingredient itself in cakes, cream and even pancakes, jams, jellies, marinades and sauces.
Olivia O'Neal, who owns the recently expanded Sugar Mama's Bakeshop on South First Street, recently added Big Red cupcakes to her specialty lineup.
"Big Red is so Texas, so fun," she says. After finding a number of variations on soda cakes online, O'Neal decided to modify her red velvet cake recipe to use the soda in the recipe. (The company also gave her the soda concentrate to work with, which goes in the filling inside the cupcake.)
"We wanted to make it like an old-fashioned soda float," she says, so they added chocolate sprinkles and a cherry on top. O'Neal says they are only making the cupcake — called the Rojo Grande, the winning name from a customer contest — on Wednesdays this summer to celebrate the company's anniversary.
O'Neal says that when using Big Red in baking at home, be careful not to swap all the liquid for Big Red or else you'll lose some of the texture of the final product. "We'd baked with beer before, but I hadn't baked with soda," she says. They ended up using half of the buttermilk originally called for in the recipe and replaced the second half with the soda. "You could do the same with Sprite or root beer."
Not too far away at Lucy's Fried Chicken, bartenders mix rum, lime juice and Big Red for an off-the-menu drink they call the Red-Headed Step Child, and in San Antonio, you'll find many a margarita glass with an upside-down bottle of Big Red stuck in the middle.
But before we get too carried away with ourselves, critics point out that the highly caffeinated drink, in addition to being artificially flavored and, in most versions, sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, also contains Red 40, a controversial chemical that is highly regulated and on the way out in Europe.
"We think a lot about that, especially being in Austin," Oh says. "We say, there's good for you, better for you and fun for you. We are a fun-for-you product. We are a treat for people."
Stay up-to-date with food news by following food writer Addie Broyles on Twitter @broylesa or on her Relish Austin blog, austin360.com/relishaustin. Contact Addie at 912-2504 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Though a Big Red float, made with scoop of vanilla ice cream in a glass of Big Red, is a quintessential Texas treat, home cooks have long been adding a can of Big Red to the ice cream itself. This is one of the easiest ice creams to make, as long as you have an ice cream machine to do the churning. If you're still using a hand-crank machine, you'll have to (nostalgically, I hope) churn for much longer than with the electric machine. Some recipes call for a cup or so of macerated strawberries, which you can certainly add to this recipe, but if you do, I'd use about half a can of soda and half a cup of cream to make sure everything still fits in your machine.
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy cream (or whipping cream or plain yogurt)
1 12-oz. can Big Red
In a medium bowl, whisk together sweetened condensed milk and cream. Pour in Big Red and mix slowly until well combined. Add mixture to an ice cream machine and process according to the manufacturer's instructions. Chill in the freezer for at least an hour before serving.
– Addie Broyles
1 1/2 oz. Treaty Oak Rum
1/4 oz. fresh lime juice
6 oz. Big Red soda
Fill a Collins glass with crushed ice. Add the rum and lime juice and top with the soda. Stir until combined and serve with a straw.
– Lucy's Fried Chicken
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Becky Ozuna, the company's digital marketing manager.