Ginger ale cured every sickness when I was a kid, or so I thought — but why?

When my own kid was sick, I felt pulled toward the refrigerator case for the taste of familiar medicine

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published January 27, 2023 8:59AM (EST)

Gingerale and saltine crackers (Getty Images/dlinca)
Gingerale and saltine crackers (Getty Images/dlinca)

Nothing hurts a parent more than watching your child suffer. My three-year-old daughter had the flu recently and a piece of me crumbled. I know that things could be worse than a cough, a fever and some phlegm. But seeing her hacking and restless makes me restless. "Go to the store and pick up some Zarbee's and Chestal with honey," my wife ordered, our daughter tucked between her arms. 

I ran to the door like a rom-com protagonist, stopping to blow a kiss at my hacking child before blasting to the drugstore to clean out the child medicine aisle. I took it all: Zarbee's and Children's Tylenol and Children's Motrin and Children's NyQuil, even though I know my wife won't give the baby the hard stuff. I bought it because I take it. Those overpriced Whole Foods herbal and homeopathic cold remedies do nothing for me — I need that old stuff like Robitussin (which we call The Tessem) and heavy-duty cough drops that dissolve into my hot tea. So I buy the children's versions for her, just in case. As I load the cart, I walk past a refrigerator case of ginger ale — the one fluid that has cured generations of Black people. This is what the baby needs, I think.

"Ginger rail" is how every single person in my orbit pronounces it, from the people who never stepped foot in the classroom after elementary to the ones with letters behind their names. This soda has been the number one remedy for sick Black people my entire life. Got a cold? Have some ginger ale. Fever? A huge, iced cup of ginger ale will bring it down. Get shot three times with a 45-caliber pistol?  Rub some room-temperature ginger ale on those wounds and you should be able to go back to work in the morning.

Ginger ale can cure classism, put the spice back in a failed marriage, help Lance Armstrong crush the Tour de France and cancel racism in America. The ale is that serious.

As a child, I had asthma. It wasn't strange for me to be playing touch football with my friends or biting the heads off my sister's Barbies one minute and then regurgitating everywhere as my head spiraled, "Exorcist"-style, trying to catch my breath while being rushed to the hospital the next. During those hospital visits, I don't remember funny doctors, fluids that came from IVs, ice cream or lollipops. I almost don't even remember the few years I had to carry an inhaler. But I really remember that big, ice-cold cup of ginger ale that always made me feel like I was taking a turn for the better.

No matter the brand, that spicy, syrupy fluid always seemed to work.

People outside of my community reading this need to understand that ginger ale was only 50 percent of the cure. The other half is "go lay down." My grandma, or any other unlicensed doctor, would prescribe, "Drink some ginger-rail and go lay down." 

My grandma, or any other unlicensed doctor, would prescribe, "Drink some ginger-rail and go lay down." 

Does it really work? Johns Hopkins Medicine credits ginger with having the ability to ease morning sickness in pregnant women, reduce nausea and inflammation, and aid in the treatment of migraines. Emma Slattery, a clinical dietitian at Johns Hopkins Medicine writes, "Ginger is fantastic. It's not just delicious. Gingerol, a natural component of ginger root, benefits gastrointestinal motility ― the rate at which food exits the stomach and continues along the digestive process. Eating ginger encourages efficient digestion, so food doesn't linger as long in the gut."

No one chopped up pieces of actual ginger root for me and blended them into a smoothie or boiled them down into a drinkable liquid during my childhood. As an adult, I've experimented with my own ginger concoctions and purchased all kinds of ginger drinks from different juice bars and I can honestly say it tastes nothing like ginger ale, the beverage I trusted for most of my life when dealing with common colds. 

Traditional ginger ale, Healthline tells me, is fermented and contains natural ingredients. Traditional ginger ale could potentially offer some of the medicinal associated with the root. But the ginger ale cans I saw in the drugstore were filled with high fructose corn syrup and ginger extract "with natural flavors." What the hell are natural flavors? I grabbed two cans anyway, so I would have something to splash into my drink later on — you know, just enough to change the color while I complete my research. 

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If I had to imagine the root of my community's obsession with ginger ale, I would probably trace it back to slavery, and then Black people receiving no or poor health care. I'd think about the way James Marion Sims experimented on Black women and his brutal treatment of enslaved babies during neonatal tetanus experiments, and the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, and how medicine has long been a scary trigger for many Black people in America. I didn't grow up trusting doctors and hospitals because my parents didn't. I didn't go for routine checkups, I went when I literally couldn't breathe. We would do any and everything in our power to avoid being treated by medical professionals. That mentality, that medical fear, gives way to home remedies like chicken noodle soup, gargling with salt water, taking a nap and, yes, sipping on the syrupy, high fructose, food-colored ginger ale. 

I wanted a little insight into my family's history with ginger ale and other home remedies, so I called my mother. She was a late-'50s, almost '60s, baby who didn't grow up with Whole Foods, organic medicine, the internet, or that God-awful Web MD that always seems to tell me I am dying. And she didn't have the same resources that I have now, so maybe ginger ale was more important when I was a kid. Maybe it had to work. 

I told her I would never give that soda to my child — until she became old enough to mix it with alcohol, I joked — but also said it couldn't have been that bad because she gave it to me when I was young and I'm still alive and pretty healthy. 

"That wasn't me," mom hissed. "I worked in the medical field for plenty of years and I know that doesn't make any sense." 

"Don't be a Monday morning quarterback, Ma," I said, remembering being nine years old and tilting my head back to drink from the two-liter while playing Mario, happy as hell that asthma had kept me out of school. "Just act like it's a fever in the year 1989. Now you were really young, so I'll give you a pass. But take me back to the time when you filled up that big cup of ginger-rail and poured it on top of your sick son."

I could hear her grin. "I gave you baby aspirin when you had a fever. I took you to the ER when you used to have those asthma attacks. Your father prescribed ginger-rail and I don't know where he got it from. You need to talk to him." 

I called my dad and he simply said, "It works. It still works. But after you drink it, just lay down." 

Dad has a way of making me laugh and then quickly ending the conversation. He knows exactly when to put a pin in it. I know ginger ale isn't what we think it is. Luckily, I have more resources at my fingertips than my parents had, from available information to finances. But the fundamental thing I got from them, and will pass down to my child, is love. What that love looks like has changed since I went from a little kid to a middle-aged dad. Parental love will continue to change when my daughter is a parent, too, if she decides to have children. My parents gave the sick kid ginger ale because that's all they had. I googled what the hell is ginger ale and figured out something else. My daughter might be chopping up ginger root and sprinkling it on her own kid's oatmeal someday. 

The baby was asleep when I got home from the store, but we knew her cough would wake us up by 2 a.m. So we had an array of organic remedies waiting for her, knowing they may take longer to work and cause her to miss a week of early learning. At least I know the ingredients. That's all I can ask for.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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