I grew up in a Kool-Aid family. Now, that doesn’t mean we joined a fan club or wore Kool-Aid apparel or went around trying to convince others that Kool-Aid was a superior soft drink. It simply means that the product with origins in Hastings (I didn’t even know that as a child) flowed through our lives.
Back in the 1970s, my mother’s kitchen on the farm south of Norman had a drawer with a 2-inch stack of Kool-Aid packets in the front, standing up on end. The packets with our favorite flavors were always in the front since they were selected, and therefore replaced, most frequently. These were orange, grape, yellow lemonade and pink lemonade.
Other flavors, more obscure to us and for more specific needs — “reds” like cherry, raspberry and strawberry that my mom sometimes used in recipes, plus lemon-lime in the green packet for I-forget-what-purpose — could be found farther back.
We usually had some pop in the house — Coke or Pepsi or Squirt or 7-Up kept at the bottom of the basement stairs.
But those were the days when drinking pop was not close to an everyday occurrence, and we might not have tasted the stuff even once a week.
Pop was relatively expensive and came in 16-ounce glass bottles that required an opener. As a child, I never drank a bottle of pop in one sitting; to do so would have been gluttonous. The leftover went into the refrigerator with one of those rubber stoppers to help hold in the fizz.
No, Kool-Aid was our go-to beverage, along with iced sun tea my mother brewed in a large pickle jar on the back step.
On a hot summer weekday or Saturday afternoon, around 4 o’clock when many farmers took a break from their work (many families called that “lunch,” as opposed to dinner at the noon meal and supper in the evening), everyone would gather in the house, sit down around the kitchen table and have a glass of Kool-Aid, maybe stirred up on the spot, or else a bit earlier by my mom and then put in the fridge to cool.
We drank it over ice from large green plastic glasses. Meanwhile, Mom set the cookie jar in the middle of the table so we could help ourselves and washed some grapes or cherries or apples we could share.
If Mom was not home, or if the cookie jar was empty for some reason (that was rare), our Plan B snack was saltines or graham crackers. I can still picture Dad scrubbing away at his hands and forearms with Lava soap at the shower room sink, trying to get the dirt and grease and oil off his skin before taking his break and lifting food to his lips.
For 20 minutes or so, we all — my mom and dad, brothers and sisters and I — took a break from our work or play or whatever we were busy doing. It was a chance to touch base in the middle of the day and make plans for what remained of it. (At our place, the farm work began between 7 and 8 o’clock in the morning rather than at the crack of dawn, but it also continued until dark, meaning supper in midsummer might have begun during the 10 o’clock news and ended during the Johnny Carson show.)
But if 4 o’clock lunch was a popular time for Kool-Aid on the Raun farm, on Sunday nights the sugary stuff was more or less obligatory.
On Sundays, we ate an early breakfast of pancakes or French toast or cornbread before driving to Heartwell for church, then came home and sat around reading the Sunday World-Herald we had picked up at the Heartwell tavern or Wally Werner’s welding shop in Norman.
We also had a “second breakfast” of toast or cinnamon rolls, or maybe some doughnuts brought home from Carlson’s Bakery in Minden.
Our only other proper meal of the day was Sunday dinner in the mid to late afternoon. We didn’t eat supper that night, but Mom cranked out batches of popcorn in our old oil popper on the stove, and we ate it with — you guessed it — a pitcher of Kool-Aid. Sunday evening was one time of the week we were often all awake in the house together for a few hours at a stretch, relaxing and maybe watching “Sixty Minutes” and the Sunday night movie on television.
This was supposed to be a concisely written column about Kool-Aid, composed to help promote Hastings’ annual Kool-Aid Days celebration later this month.
But as you can see, it’s really just a stream of memories about my family, my childhood and the rhythms of life on one Nebraska farm.
Yes, we Rauns were Kool-Aid people — not because we ever gave much praiseor even thought to the stuff, but simply because it was part of our lives and our lifestyle, day by day and week by week.
This, I think, has been the secret to Kool-Aid’s longevity in the marketplace and in the American consciousness: For just a few cents’ worth of powder and your own added sugar (a somewhat appalling full cup of the stuff to make a half-gallon of drink), you can fill your pitcher, gather your family and make memories to last a lifetime.
That’s the way it worked on our farm, anyhow. And as I grow older, those memories — and the people who populate them — become all the more dear to me.
For all the clever, kid-centric advertising and promotion Kool-Aid has been known for over the decades, I think the smartest thing Kool-Aid inventor Edwin Perkins ever did was to lower the price of a Kool-Aid packet from 10 cents to 5 cents during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, thereby making it accessible to more families during a time of great economic trial.
By keeping his product available to the masses in a time of widely shared distress, he ensured that whether a child grew up rich or poor, in the city or the country, he or she most likely would have Kool-Aid as part of his or her experience of growing up.
That decision has been paying dividends ever since, bringing one generation after another into the Kool-Aid-drinking fold.
Both my parents, who were young children during the Depression years when Kool-Aid still was a fairly new product, remember their mothers making Kool-Aid for them frequently.
My dad, who grew up on the farm in southeastern Kearney County, remembers Kool-Aid every afternoon in the summer. (His favorite flavor was the lemon-lime, one of Perkins’ six originals.)
My mom, who grew up in Lincoln and Beatrice before moving to Hastings as a high school student, remembers Kool-Aid on all special occasions at home. “It was cheap, and it tasted good,” she explains. (Surprisingly, she says she liked the red flavors best as a child. It makes me wonder why the reds and my dad’s favorite lemon-lime were NEVER the flavors we mixed up when I was a kid.)
My children, Jordyn and Aaron, like Kool-Aid Jammers and Kool-Aid Bursts — both prepared products that come in single-serving packaging.
But they still get my wife, Ruth, to help them stir up a jugful from powder the old–fashioned way when they want to sell it by the glass to the neighbors — just like my cousin Mary Jo and I used to do when we were their age, and like Ruth remembers doing on her street in Minden when she was a child. (Incidentally, it’s a lot easier to get customers to stop at your lemonade stand when people are walking or riding their bicycles past your house in town and aren’t all driving 50 miles per hour down a gravel road.)
So the tradition of youthful enterprise continues!
See you in Hastings Aug. 9-11 for Kool-Aid Days 2019. Meanwhile, I’m going to hug my kids, thank my parents, and raise a glass of kid-friendly sweetness to the “good old days” — both those I remember personally, and those I hope the young people of today will be reliving for years to come.
(If you’re still reading, this would be an appropriate time to mutter “Hear! Hear!” Or how about just, “Oh, Yeah!!!” …)