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This is the story of two psychedelic love songs vying to be the theme for a strawberry soda recipe.
Both have “strawberry” in the title. Both evoke a trippy surreal vision of nature and love. Both achieved hit status though granted one is perhaps much better known than the other. They come from somewhat different genres. The more famous song is a psychedelic pop-rock studio extravaganza. The other is a less psychedelic pop-funk-soul dream but nonetheless trippy. It also happens to have been recorded by one of my favorite and supremely underrated funk-soul groups of the ’70s, The Brothers Johnson.
“Strawberry Letter 23” is definitely on the more poppy side of The Brothers Johnson oeuvre, but damn what a stellar example of slow jam R&B crossed with a touch of psychedelic pop and surreal lyrics very rarely found in a soul love song. It’s also an outlier in a mostly funk-driven career known more for “Stomp!” or “Get The Funk Out My Face.” There is something wonderful about “Strawberry Letter 23” still having a funky soul, but combining it with shimmering keyboard and a smooth R&B summer feel. This is one of those perfect summer songs despite not being as funky as The Brothers Johnson can be, but a perfect intro into their brand of funk and the ideal theme for a strawberry soda.
Red pop, as we called it in the Midwest, is ostensibly supposed to be strawberry flavored. At least, that’s my belief. Instead, it ends up being some cloy concoction which ultimately tastes like “red” but not like any natural flavor. I don’t often crave red pop, but a recent dive into syrup making and a bit of YouTube driven soda nostalgia had me wondering if I could make a truly great “red pop” that tasted of real fruit and didn’t leave me thirstier than when I started.
I began by making a straight strawberry syrup. Essentially the recipe below minus the hibiscus and vanilla. Combined with seltzer, it was fine, definitely fruit-forward, Just not “red pop.” It was missing an added depth, that extra level in a soda often created with a list of unpronounceable additives.
Vanilla was the first tweak I made shooting for a kind of strawberry cream soda. Closer but not quite there. Then it dawned on my I needed a bit of tartness to counter the sweetness of the strawberries. As I had been making a batch of sorrel, I decided to use some dried hibiscus in the mix. The result was a spot on grown-up red pop with a nice sweet-tart flavor, not overly cloying, and subtle vanilla cream in the aftertaste. It’s certainly not the “red pop” of my youth, but it’s definitely the red pop of my adulthood.
STRAWBERRY LETTER 23
Strawberry hibiscus soda syrup
Makes about 2 cups
2 cups sliced strawberries
1 1/4 cup dried hibiscus flowers
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups of water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Puree strawberries in a blender at high speed. In a medium saucepan, combine strawberry puree, dried hibiscus flowers, sugar, water, and vanilla extract. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Do not simmer beyond 10 minutes as you’ll lose the fruity floral flavor.
Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain the syrup through a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl pressing on the solids to extract as much syrup as possible. Pour into a bottle or jar with a tight lid and store in the fridge.
To make a soda:
In a tall glass, add a few tablespoons of syrup. Top with seltzer and ice. Stir to combine.