One of the few mass market drinks I was allowed as a child was Kool-Aid. One of my earliest memories was of pouring a cupful of sugar into a pitcher that seemed almost as large as my body, and then watching as my mother tore open the packet and poured in the powder. There was a science to it… no, it rose to the level of art; stirring slowly, rhythmically to break up the clumps of color that bobbed at the surface, while keeping the sugar from settling to the bottom in a gooey mass.
In my family, Kool-Aid was private. Intimate. I learned this the hard way at summer camp. In the 80s you couldn’t find single serve Kool-Aid drinks, so you had to use Sunny Delight or Capri Sun. On my first day of camp, I took out my Sunny D bottle and nervously twisted the cap. I took a couple of sips. It tasted grainy, an odd mix of sour citrus and sweet high fructose corn syrup. Within minutes I began to itch, and I watched in horror as my flesh rose into welts. I felt the eyes of all my campmates boring holes into me as I was led off to the camp nurse. My mother was called, and after a quick trip to the doctor for an antihistamine, we made another attempt, hitting the corner store for a few bags of Capri Sun.
If anything, my attempt to drink from a pouch was even more embarrassing than the hives. The package comes with a straw, which you are supposed to stab through a small circle, creating an outlet for the juice inside. Unfortunately, even as a young child, motor skills were never my strong suit. After multiple attempts to break the rhino-like hide encasing my beverage, I managed to tear open a hole. If the product’s intended circle were to be compared to a target’s bullseye, my straw would have missed the target completely. I ruptured the bottom of the bag, sending a fountain of ruby red sugar water gushing off my face and down the front of my new white campshirt. Thank G-d none of us had seen the movie Carrie yet, or I’m pretty sure my campmates would have expected me to start crushing them with my mind next.
One of my fellow campers took me aside and called me on my obvious unfamiliarity with drink boxes and pouches. “Well,” I replied defensively, “at home I always drink Kool-Aid…”
“Of course you do,” my friend nodded sagely.
“What’s that supposed to mean?!” I asked.
“You’re Black. Black people drink Kool-Aid.”
I pondered this for a moment. I didn’t know whether that was true or not, since at the time I only knew about five Black people in total aside from my family, none of whom I had shared a prepared beverage with.
“You’re crazy!” I summed up with all the eloquence my parched throat could muster.
She continued, “I bet you even like grape or orange flavor.”
She had me there. While my parents sometimes went outside the box and got a Fruit Punch packet or two, the lion’s share of our Kool-Aid budget was spent on grape flavor, with orange as the backup. I was embarrassed to have fit so neatly into a cultural stereotype I hadn’t even known existed.
For the next twenty years, I thought carefully about my beverage choices, in order to prove that all Black people do not necessarily choose only grape and orange flavors. But once I moved to Israel, I figured all bets were off. After searching diligently for unsweetened drink mixes in every major Israeli grocery chain, I bit the bullet and ordered a $75 grab bag of Kool-Aid packets from Ebay.
When I told my best friend how I excited I was about my order, her daughter asked what Kool-Aid was. So, we looked it up on Wikipedia to explain it. That’s when we found the quote “Kool Aid is also very popular and beloved in the African American community.”
We were equal parts angry and amused; although, let’s face it, Wikipedia is only slightly more accurate than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so we weren’t exactly surprised. The comment was shortly expunged from the Kool-Aid Wiki, but still lives on in the talkbacks.
After the order arrived, my kids took turns mixing a pitcher of each of the twenty different flavors we received. Kool-Aid has definitely gotten more upscale since my childhood. I enjoyed Cherry Limeade, was confused by Sharkleberry Fin (WTF?!: Which, according to my kids’ favorite breakfast cereal, stands for What’s the Flavor?), and became saddened by all of the “invisible” flavors, which managed to turn making a pitcher of Kool-Aid into as much fun as making a pitcher of water.
But after a few weeks, guess which flavors we ran out of first? That’s right. Grape and orange. So, I gave up. If my kids want to have an orange drank (thanks, Dave Chappelle) instead of Sunny D, or demand grape lollipops, it’s no sweat. Part of Martin Luther King’s legacy should be that I am not only free to enjoy treats from Williams and Sonoma, but that I can also keep grape Kool-Aid on tap. And so for MLK day, I made two pitchers of Kool-Aid, one orange and one grape. And I poured one for my homie, Dr. King. And I hope you enjoyed it, wherever you are.