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The Paris Soda Shop in Niles serves up authentic soda shop treats, nostalgia

I am happy to report that my faith in ice cream desserts has been restored.

I noticed The Paris Soda Shop sign in Niles, Mich., about three years ago, soon after I moved back to South Bend. It wasn’t until May of this year I visited it, after my mom and I were driving through town, glanced at each other and finally agreed: Today is the day, and now is the time.

We both love ice cream, and we are both enamored with soda fountains and fountain treats. It’s important to me to find authentic places for ice cream classics because, well, they are classics. Here’s why:

  • They stand the test of time with the certainty of their soundness and authenticity.
  • You can always rely on their consistency.
  • When you come upon one, you know it’s real.
  • Nostalgia is powerful thing, especially when it involves food.
  • It transports you back to the first time, last time or the many times you’ve experienced whatever “it” is.

We both had a good feeling when we stepped into The Paris Soda Shop. It was a real soda shop serving Sherman’s Ice Cream from South Haven, Mich., and playing classic music from the ’50s. Rhonda James, the manager, greeted us warmly from behind the counter. All the right equipment was there too. The true makings of a authentic ice cream experience. There was a red retro laminate countertop with a row of round, padded bar stools, and classic glasses and dishes for all kinds of soda fountain concoctions. A Hamilton-Beach milkshake mixer and hot fudge warmers stood at the ready, along with a row of brightly colored bottles of flavored syrups and a 1940s goose-neck soda fountain.

The menu confirmed our hopes, too. Phosphates, sundaes, floats, malts and banana splits were all listed. When I asked Rhonda what the difference is between an ice cream soda and an ice cream float, she had an answer. They are both the same thing, but many people associate the word “soda” with “pop.” Her daughter, Tia, who also works there, explained the kids don’t know either because they didn’t grow up with those names. Regardless of the terminology, they both said if you tell us what it is, they are happy to make it for you. I plan to return with a recipe for an egg cream…

This visit to Paris Soda Shop inspired me to dig into the history of soda shops, which catapulted me from ice cream sodas and hot fudge sundaes back to the early medicinal and spiritual beliefs and practices of the native people of this continent, and ultimately through the historical accounts of the development of the Soda Fountain.

I discovered that soda fountains were invented to recreate carbonated mineral spring waters. These springs were revered by the native people of this continent for their healing qualities and spiritual significance. When the colonists arrived with little or no medical knowledge and few physicians available to cure their ills, they used the healing properties of these waters and turned them into a thriving business.

Apothecaries and pharmacies began to dispense these carbonated waters for various ailments and mix them with the medicines of that time — including various narcotics, barbiturates and opiates — to make them taste better. Sweet, fruity syrups were also stirred into the bubbly water to make non-medicinal flavored sodas for refreshing beverages.

Over time, the soda fountains brought in a lot more business than the pharmacy alone and became social gathering places for a mix of men, women, children, older adults and different social classes of people. The soda dispensers, called “soda jerks” or “fizzicians” were early mixologists who used their creativity to produce seemingly endless formulas of flavors. Soda fountains even took the place of saloons during Prohibition, offering alternative social drinking places and providing jobs for out of work barmen. They even inherited the hefty government tax that was lost when alcohol was forbidden.

Through the years, many theories arose over who first added ice cream to the flavored sodas for a new frozen treat and why soda water was left out of the mix to create the sundae. I say necessity is the mother of invention, and that is a beautiful thing.

I had no idea there was such a rich and colorful history surrounding the origins of ice cream sodas and sundaes. That is one reason why I love food as much as I do. It can take you places you never even dreamed of.

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