When Kool-Aid Is the Start of a Culinary Education
I wanted to celebrate the food of my childhood — regardless of what that food may be
I am a fan of the television show “Chef’s Table,” even if every episode invariably follows the same arc: There is a staid opening scene that leans toward establishing the legitimacy of the chef. Next, it dives into that chef’s background. The storyline tends to highlight the guidance or mentorship of an elder or parental figure, and it includes experiences centered around intimate moments of joy in food — in fields, gardens, or in the kitchen with family. The camera shots are beautiful. Affirming interviews with contemporaries and peers are carefully placed. And the narrative tends to position that chef as an innovator.
These introductions are magnificent in every way except one: They have never made me feel like my story could ever be told there. I see myself in the very same space as a Grant Achatz, or Massimo Bottura, or Magnus Nilsson: These men are innovators who have used their personal experiences to create food that not only tells their story but also has moved food and dining culture.
I was born a Black boy in Philadelphia in 1986 in the middle of a crack epidemic in the ghetto where I grew up. My mother raised four boys on her own while maintaining work and school; my father was in prison. There were no farms, no chickens or cows to tend to. There was actually the complete opposite. I was raised in a row home in a neighborhood called Happy Hollow in Northwest Philly. Our home was positioned next to an empty lot overgrown with weeds and across the street from another empty lot of concrete. A lot that used to be a factory, leveled and still is.
I am the oldest of four boys. The four of us enjoyed our time in the weeded-over lot next-door to us with our neighbors in the summertime. We created adventures in our “jungle” of weeds. Finding all sorts of things to play with: broken sticks for baseball, old records to throw as frisbees, rocks, worms, and garden snakes. And when the sun dipped, and our parents would conveniently forget how late it was, we would catch the lightnin’ bugs in our hands. We’d laugh as we chased after each other with them. We imagined a world of our own joy and found it among the ivy and wishing dandelions. There was a world of light in the palm of our hands. We laughed and smiled in glee until we got too tired from running and cackling. We happily ran into the house, falling over ourselves through the threshold, while lovingly being yelled at for lettin’ the screen door slam behind us.
When we were all finished playing, we washed our hands and faces and scrubbed the smelling of outside from our filthy bodies. It was dinnertime. The night’s offerings could include many a thing, from fettuccine alfredo with sour cream or curried lamb shoulder chops with sauteed bell peppers to tuna fish sandwiches with salad or even simply a bowl of instant ramen — Oodles of Noodles.
The one thing that was always present was Kool-Aid. At times I remember my mother being able to buy 24 packs for a dollar from our neighborhood supermarket. It was the ’90s, when things could seem relatively cheap. I was usually tasked with the responsibility of making the satiating drink, since my mother said that I was the best at it. I actually believe that it was because I drank most of it and she wanted me to replenish it without the burden of guilt. If we were out of our favorite beverage, my mother would make sure to ask me to make it ahead of time to get it chilled before we ate. That call to action was how I knew that we would be eating soon.
We most often would buy orange, lemonade, grape, and tropical punch or cherry. I remember saving the red flavors for last. They were my favorites. We had a two-quart pitcher, so it would require two packets to fill. One packet of Kool-Aid and one cup of sugar makes one quart of the drink, according to the instructions on the packet. But we all know that ain’t true. It certainly requires more sugar, and my family took the liberty of adding a squirt of lemon juice to ours for a bit of acidity. I never measured the sugar, and day by day there’d be a discussion assessing the deliciousness of that day’s concoction. We always knew when it wasn’t made by me.
When the time came to begin inviting guests to Honeysuckle and into my nostalgic mind, I knew it would have to come from a real place. I spent years trying to fit my origins into the boxes that have been presented to me through several forms of culinary media and education. How could my beginnings compare to that of a child who was born into an ocean of culinary validation? The answer was that I couldn’t, and I learned that that was OK. I learned that the Black imagination is a farming of itself. The ability to harvest life no matter the seeds you’re given is a gift that is mine to unwrap.
The ability to harvest life no matter the seeds you’re given is a gift that is mine to unwrap.
There are many ways that society has tried to make Black folks feel shame. Food has always been at the center of that attack, from watermelon, to peanuts, to cabbage, and now in our modern time — Kool-Aid. I’ve heard and even partaken on some occasions in jokes that mock and stereotype Black culture. The ignorant position that people feel so free to stand in against Black joy is astounding when you think about it. The mockery is rooted in slavery, minstrelsy, and an overall lack of respect for Black life. Knowing all of this used to make me afraid. I used to be afraid of saying that I enjoyed certain things when in “mixed company.” I tried to bend myself to be accepted while denying the things that made me.
There were many instances of enlightenment in my journey toward Honeysuckle that I like to call “ah-ha” moments — where I would find a glimpse of my true self either in conversation, food, or both — that shifted my thinking about what our American foodways are and how I am either a part of that narrative or how I am not.
I had an ah-ha moment in about 2014 while on a date at a popular casual restaurant in Brooklyn called The Meatball Shop. The Meatball Shop is pretty straightforward: It serves meatball-focused dishes, simple wines, and basic cocktails. There was one cocktail, however, that jumped out at me right off its laminated, dry-erase marker menu. It was called “Fool- Aid” and it’s made of brandy, rum, and grape drink served in a mason jar or a carafe. A single serving is seven bucks, while the carafe comes in two sizes for $15 or $28. I asked my server about the drink: Could they really be serving and selling Kool-Aid? He confirmed and said that it was a house favorite. I ordered the small carafe with excitement and curiosity.
It arrived at our table within moments of our order in a sleek, small glass pitcher. My mind was immediately sent to the Kool-Aid commercials featuring the glass jug man exclaiming “Oh yeah!” after kicking through the wall of someone’s property to save all from thirst. I poured the purple elixir into our glasses. And under a Brooklyn moonlight, inside of a restaurant with exposed brick and dimmed Edison bulb lighting, we had our cheers of fancy Kool-Aid. It was delicious and satisfying and yet I had so many questions.
At that point, I’d spent most of my career in restaurants that one could consider to be fine dining or leaning toward that sort of presentation. The Meatball Shop is no such restaurant, but I couldn’t believe that they were serving it even in their casual environment. The thought of it made me a little uncomfortable, especially as I sipped my drink imagining the plausibility of me trying to do the same. The thought of it was akin to a self-lynching. At the time I thought that I would never be able to serve this drink, even if I wanted to. It would be demeaning, stereotypical, outright shameful. But why should the owners of The Meatball Shop and countless other restaurants capitalize on this product and I left feeling shamed by it?
Kool-Aid is not a “Black” product in origin or intention. But somewhere along the way, it became our modern watermelon. It was invented by a man named Edwin Perkins in the 1920s and was initially a liquid concentrate called Fruit Smack, created to be stirred into water to make the refreshing beverage. It became a popular drink, and the demand forced Perkins to reconsider the form of his beloved soft drink because it became difficult to ship the liquid around the country. He performed several tests in his mother’s home in Hastings, Nebraska, until he learned how to remove the liquid from it, leaving only the powder. Shipping became easier, and they rebranded the product as Kool-Aid to make it a parallel in the minds of the public to lemonade and limeade.
Data is scant on the rates of poverty among Americans, much less Black Americans, in the 1920s, but proximal knowledge to the time period would suggest that there weren’t many Black folks able to or willing to pay for a nonessential product such as Kool-Aid. How did this product become synonymous with the Black experience and then further a gross stereotype? I am not sure of the answer. But in my experience, Kool-Aid is one of those food items that can be represented in what I like to call “struggle food.” Black Americans are historically and contemporarily disenfranchised from healthy food options. This shift happened alongside many others in the early to mid-20th century, including industrialization, urbanism, terrorism, and redlining, to name a few.
Struggle food is the food of the poor and disenfranchised and usually consists of products that are largely made up of dangerous amounts of sugars, preservatives, and government-subsidized materials like modified corn and wheat. Kool-Aid finds itself right in that pocket. The stigma of poverty and the ghetto are what Black people face whenever they see a package of Kool-Aid outside of the comfort and safety of our communities. It has been used as a tool of mockery and jest in television and film. The thought of it conjures up racist cartoon images of the 1930s and ’40s; Black folks engorged, lazy, and slumped smiling in watermelon patches — stupefied. In these instances, I see red. From the fear of shame, from the anger of prejudice, from the humiliating mockery of life.
Struggle food is the food of the poor and disenfranchised and usually consists of products that are largely made up of dangerous amounts of sugars, preservatives, and government-subsidized materials like modified corn and wheat. Kool-Aid finds itself right in that pocket.
I decided that if I had the opportunity I would want to flip that narrative for myself. I no longer wanted to be ashamed. I didn’t think it was fair that society could have its way with me and tell me that my culture was worthless and then invite me to dinner to pay $15 for my struggle with a little bit of rum (rum being another story in classism and racism altogether) in the glass. I found it to be a con. I found it to be racism with a red Kool-Aid-flavored cherry on top.
I now serve Honeysuckle Red Drink at every dinner as a welcome: To usher in the time to eat as it did for me when I was a child, but also to assert my experience as valid upon entry. The powder of pulverized freeze-dried red fruits is combined with sugar and citric acid to give this punch a nostalgic taste of home and a kick through the wall of my own personal culinary liberation.
Omar Tate is the chef and artist behind Honeysuckle, a dinner pop up series dedicated to exploring black heritage and culture through food. He uses history and various forms of art to tell the nuanced stories of black folks with his guests.