Kool-Aid

National Soul Food Month 2. If there is a standard soul food drink, it’s a red drink. Big Red soda, a red creme soda from Texas, is especially popular at Juneteenth celebrations. Adrian Miller, the “soul food scholar” we often cite in this blog, once said that red drinks are “the official soul-food drink, and if a place doesn’t offer it in some form, the restaurant is automatically suspect to me.”

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Lo and behold, here is Adrian Miller at table, looking quite happy, with a Mason jar of red kool aid in prominent view

Unlike mac & cheese, which doesn’t have African roots, red drinks most certainly do. Miller has summarized this history for us. (Look, if still you don’t have a copy of Soul Food, go buy one today. How many times do I have to tell you?). Anyway….

In Africa, popular red drinks included hibiscus tea and drinks made from the kola nut (here, we dye our cola drinks brown). Yes, that can of Coke or Pepsi sitting in front of you owes a big debt to Africa.

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(Sorting kola nuts)

The first time I made hibiscus tea, my initial reaction was that it tasted like cranberry juice, and I promptly loaded it up with sugar. Something similar happened in the cola world. It is widely believed that the original Coca-Cola formula included cocaine, and that it was removed c.1903 and replaced by more caffeine and sugar.

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Ironically, for those of us who were alive in the 1970s, most of whatever we know about kola nuts came from a TV ad for 7-Up soda, which doesn’t use them.

To put it simply, we now have a formula: red+sugar. And that = Kool-Aid. But, like macaroni and cheese, Kool-Aid was invented by a white guy, and came from a part of the country not known for its large African American population: rural Nebraska.

Kool-Aid was invented in 1927 by Edwin Perkins, a salesman from Hastings, Nebraska. (If you look up “middle of nowhere” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a map of Hastings.) He had been selling a concentrated liquid drink mix called Fruit Smack, but the bottles were hard to ship. So he figured out how to turn the liquid into powder, and Kool-Aid (originally, “Kool-Ade”) was born.

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Kool-Aid was marketed as a cheap alternative to sodas. Coke sold its 6.5 ounce bottles for 5 cents. Pepsi, with its sweeter cola, offered a 10 ounce bottle for the same price.

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But Kool-Aid offered two quarts (roughly the equivalent of ten bottles of Coke) for the same five cents.

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After World War II, Kool-Aid instantly became the go-to drink for many families, and was the universal drink served wherever there were kids. At family get-togethers with my farm cousins in South Dakota, the adults called red Kool-Aid “nectar.” It was also the standard refreshment at church events like Vacation Bible School in the summers.

As with Kraft’s macaroni & cheese, Kool-Aid (now owned by Kraft) became a way for poor folks to afford something that might otherwise be out of reach. It was a way to offer soft drinks without having to pay extra for sodas. With Kool-Aid, you also didn’t have to haul empty bottles back to the store for the deposit.

Kool-Aid aimed at a mass market, and certainly in the 1950s and 1960s, the ads (both print and TV) featured white folks

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Nonetheless, African Americans drink a lot more Kool-Aid (and related) products than whites do. In 2011, 46 percent of blacks consumed powdered drinks, compared to 32 percent of whites. (Hispanics fell in between, at 40 percent.)

It’s not unusual for folks to take some liberties with their Kool-Aid by mixing flavors and adjusting the amount of sugar. Alcenia’s, in Memphis, is famous for its “Ghetto-Aid,” which is said to consist of cherry, grape, and tropical punch Kool-Aids, plus a third more sugar than the package prescribes.

When my daughter was little, she and her friends called such concoctions by the unfelicitous name of “suicides.” That might have been an unknowing reference to the grisly Jonestown massacre of 1978, when over 900 Americans died by cyanide poisoning in Guyana. Some called it a mass suicide; others called it a mass murder. The poison was mixed into a giant vat of grape Flavor Aid. After that tragedy, the phrase “Drink the Kool-Aid” passed into the language as a derisive description of those who seem to be following a leader blindly.

Of course, it’s part of the sick history of American racism that when a particular food gets associated with the black community, foul stereotypes emerge. This racist depiction of the President is a good (albeit gross) example:

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It’s all there: food stamps, fried chicken, ribs, watermelon, and of course, the Kool-Aid Man.

On the other side of the coin, some complain that Kool-Aid is unhealthy, a common slam levelled against soul food in general. After all, it’s a sugary drink offering a lot of nutritionally-empty calories, rot your teeth, and fatten you up. And some kids seem to react badly to the dyes in the different flavors, the good old Red Dye #40 in particular.

Point taken. Maybe this is where the old customs might be helpful. Obviously, Kool-Aid is not a suitable alternative to milk, fruit juices, and good old water. But there’s no reason why Kool-Aid can’t be the festival drink: the special treat at important moments, as red drinks were in Africa, and as they were for the formerly enslaved after emancipation. If you’re going to celebrate Juneteenth this month, go ahead and stir up a pitcher of red Kool-Aid, and enjoy every last drop of it! Or have some with your Sunday dinner. You’ll have six days to slug down boring drinks to make up for it.

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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