Scientists say taste is one of the strongest sensations the human brain can recall. As someone with an above-average memory, I think this goes double for me, and helps explain why I’m such a picky eater. Never mind how I feel about medication.
For most of my life, Robitussin was my go-to medicine. I’m a bit more picky these days, but fortunately I rarely get sick. As a child, though, I probably coughed more often than I didn’t. Chronic bronchitis, combined with the cigarette smoke I was constantly around nearly everywhere I went, left me gagging through most of my single-digit years. And amid the shuffle of Robitussin, Tylenol, Triaminic, Panadol, Mentholatum, penicillin and Vicks, there was, for one brief flash, the worst medicine in the entire history of my existence.
Mamou cough syrup.
Even as a child, I understood that medicine had to taste disgusting to be effective. But in the spring and summer of 1985, Mamou took that trope to a whole new astral plane. My parents and grandparents had to physically restrain me to force this poison down my throat. I’m not sure if I’d yet seen the then-recent Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but the scene where our hero refuses to drink the Blood of Kali definitely would have had some subconscious influence.
What made Mamou so rotten to the tongue wasn’t its taste so much as its aftertaste. To this day, anything that leaves a bitter aftertaste conjures up what I think of as the Mamou effect. It’s a mixture of honey, burnt sugar, flat cola, alcohol and sheer terror.
I can’t be sure Mamou was even real. Because with the exception of that one bottle that frightened me every time I saw it, I never came across another. Nor has anyone I’ve talked to ever even heard of it. It just appeared one day, like one of those episodic nightmares that came into my life just to wreak its havoc and go, never to be alluded to again.
As a child, I often spewed random words and names without context or with any idea how I knew them. (One example I remember from the same timeframe is how I’d say, “real ess-tate!” when I thought something was super-cool, because every afternoon my bus passed The Real Estate Building. Low-level autism, I suppose.) Mamou is a small town near where I grew up in south Louisiana, so it was entirely possible that I assigned the name of the town to the medicine at a time when I still couldn’t read very well.
On the other hand, I remember the bottle very well. The brown glass. The flask-like shape. The old-school, children-be-damned cap. And, of course, the label. It was white, with “MAMOU” across the top in red letters in Broadway font. (Even the font terrified me to the extent that, whenever we passed a print shop in downtown Lafayette that had Broadway font on its sign, I was terrified that we were going to stop in to buy more Mamou.) Underneath the brand name was a statement that featured the words “...#1 cough syrup...” Which to me meant that it wouldn’t get any better than this. I hoped Robitussin would work extra hard to regain its top-shelf status, stat!
I don’t remember what the rest of the label said, but I remember it being really wordy. Perhaps it was a primer on how to force that slop down the unfortunate patient’s throat. If that’s the case, my family followed that to the letter. I may never know.
What I can remember is several distinct instances when I had to take Mamou. I remember the settings, the crying, the pleading, the way my normally wonderful grandparents sprouted horns and fangs upon contact with the bottle, how it took a minimum of four people to subdue me with every dose, the way droplets of Mamou spilled on my favorite 7 UP shirt. Oh, the humanity!
I even had a Mamou nightmare. In it, I woke up in a bed in my grandparents’ house, which I considered a sanctuary. Hovering above me were two pretty women dressed as giant Mamou bottles, touting their product like a 1950s commercial. I jumped out of the bed and bolted for the kitchen, which to my horror had become a Mamou assembly line, churning out thousands of bottles that snaked around me while factory workers I identified as family and friends danced and sang a rousing musical number touting the virtues of the #1 cough syrup. No doubt this vision came under the influence of Mamou, and perhaps after a rerun of Laverne and Shirley.
The last time I remember ever seeing that wretched bottle was at our camp in Butte La Rose, Louisiana, sometime in the summer of 1985 or ’86. I had been there the last time I had to take some, and I remember nearly passing out from the stress of it. But at this point, I was well and hopping around. My brother had found the Mamou in a drawer, and pointed it out to me. I recoiled at the sight of it, then closed the drawer. After that, Robitussin seemed like a taste treat. Never again did I ever deal with Mamou.
So now, of course, I’m insanely curious about it. Does anyone else out in Louisiana remember Mamou cough syrup? Did it actually come from Mamou? Is it still in production? If so, I’d like to take a second crack at it next time I’m sick. And, if I can find an older bottle, I could finally figure out what all those words on the label said. In 2004, I had the fortune of meeting someone with a full bottle of Hadacol, who even let me take a whiff of the famed snake oil. So how hard can it be to locate a vintage 1980s bottle of Mamou?
But if nothing else, I always have my memories. And musical Mamou nightmares. Which I’m sure to revisit tonight after writing this. Cough!