In 1972, the pesticide DDT was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due to its link to cancer – notably breast in women and testicular in men – although some bemoaned the decision, hailing DDT as a “miracle chemical” that was eradicating the world of malaria-bearing mosquitoes. The State of Maryland (and nearly every other state in the Union) pumped and sprayed untold oceans of the stuff on croplands and hillsides and waterways in an effort to eliminate the deadly insect. One Maryland resident sprayed his swimming pool with DDT, just to be safe.
Every creek, collecting the toxic runoff, became a potential danger – and the creeks were plentiful (Maryland, however, had no naturally occurring lakes; manmade lakes like Deep Creek would come later). In the middle portion of the state, where the rocky Piedmont spreads onto the Coastal Plain, creeks wandered wide and clean through forests of oaks and pines, banks studded with sandstone outcroppings covered in honeysuckle, tiny trumpets blowing sweet and sugary in the breeze.
Throughout the forest bright green stands of sassafras saplings played at the knees of giant hardwoods. Fully pluck a young shoot from the mottled Maryland clay and with a thumbnail scrape the dirt from the sassafras root. Hold it your nose to smell the goodness. Once it was a key ingredient of root beer, which began as actual beer although its alcoholic content was only about two percent. It was brewed from a complex mixture of vanilla and cherry tree bark and licorice and sarsaparilla root and nutmeg and anise and molasses. Sassafras root was the final ingredient, until it proved to be carcinogenic so the root beer makers began substituting artificial sassafras flavor – the root can’t be sold in the US for human consumption; bark can, but it’s not very good at providing flavor. Then Prohibition descended on America and the drink became alcohol-free but enjoyed a huge upsurge, following a path first blazed by visionary brewer Charles Elmer Hire, who had been selling his carbonated version since 1893.
In black and white cowboy movies some wimp would saunter into the saloon and order a sarsaparilla, which really was the low-alcohol root beer but nevertheless poured a nice foamy head like regular beer. Oh that dark rich flavor. Maybe only sissy cowpokes and dude ranch posers ordered a sarsaparilla. But that didn’t make it less refreshing.