Kool-Aid is a refreshing drink that has been around for longer than many living people can remember. As we saw in the first part, how it brought some joy into people’s lives during the Depression, how it did its bit during WWII, and how its usefulness extends to dying hair and washing dishes. In Part 2 we continue uncovering some facts that might not be known to many people about this granddaddy of all non-carbonated drinks. Some facts are fun while others are dark and twisted. We lay them all bare here. The public, after all, has the right to know.
10. The Power of Powder
So what could go wrong when it’s the 1920s, and you’re marketing a concentrated syrup that ships to customers in large unwieldy glass containers? Of course, a lot could go wrong. And a lot did go wrong as the parcels burst in the mailman’s satchels, or along the bumpy road. Sometimes the package would arrive safely to your front gate but can’t quite make it to your front door. It is rumored that dogs played a major part in increasing the Kool-Aid bottle casualties as they attacked their perennial nemesis, the mailman. Facing an imminent disaster, Edwin Perkins the man behind Kool-Aid had to think fast to find a way to deliver his lemon-, grape-, raspberry-, and cherry-flavored drink to the customers without ruining the mailman’s uniform and dooming his nascent company’s prospects in the bargain. Perkins came up with the idea of turning his syrup into powder. And there you have it. The powder sachets were born and reached the thirsty customers just in time for a pitcher of refreshing fruit juice. Now to be fair, Perkins didn’t invent the powder solution. He simply “borrowed” the idea from Jell-o. But that’s neither here nor there in the larger scheme of things. History will always remember that moment Perkins switched to powder as a decisive moment in the history of the company and Kool-Aid as we know it.
9. Kool-Aid Man Flirted with Comic Books
We talked before about Kool-Aid Man, the famous mascot who was so popular at one point in time that it had its own video game or two. Here’s another fun fact about that coolest of all mascots, it also made a few appearances in comic books delighting, or scaring, children everywhere. Now you might be asking yourself how on earth could a bulky pitcher be saving the world from evildoers and villains who are by custom dashing and athletic figures? And that would be a valid question. To answer it we’d have to go back in time to the early 1980s when sci-fi films had cheesy plots and horrible visual effects. There were simpler times then and Marvel was still a struggling company trying to sell dreams to kids turning away from it to the more appealing video games industry. Marvel decided for no good reason at all to create a comic book starring our red pitcher. His MO was crashing into people’s homes without breaking its delicate structure with a small pitcher in its hand (its offspring?) to save the thirsty multitudes. Hardly the kind of plot one would expect from a comic book about superheroes and larger-than-life villains, right? And you can say what you like about the ‘80s but at least the people could tell when they were being taken for a sleazy ride by a glass pitcher with chubby legs and cubes of ice dancing at its top. The comic lasted three inglorious issues and then ceased to exist.
8. Nebraska Loves it
Nebraska is a great state. It’s home to… well, not much really. But that irrelevant fact doesn’t stop Nebraskans from feeling proud of their state. So much so that they clutch at straws when it comes to finding things to make them feel unique and special, in a good way, among neighboring states. And one of those great achievements that don’t get enough coverage by the news media or history books is the fact that Nebraska is the land where Kool-Aid first made its appearance, announced itself to the world and made a really big splash all over the map. From Nebraska, thousands of pitchers of syrup made their way to the homes of hard-working Americans everywhere only to meet their demise just a few yards from their final destination. Such a distinction should be celebrated, don’t you think? Well, nobody asked you. Nebraskans tend to think so anyway. And being the astute overachievers they are, as soon as they make such an important decision they spring into action right away. People voted unanimously to make Kool-Aid the official drink of the state. There wasn’t really a vote or anything. It’s just an idea that was floated around and getting a lukewarm response was embraced enthusiastically by the then governor of the state Ben Nelson who made it the law of the land.
7. There’s a Kool-Aid Day Festival
If Nebraska is proud of its stature among neighboring states as the birthplace of Kool-Aid, that pride is nothing compared to the gushing passion the town where it all started feels. That town is called Hastings and the nice people of this charming town will go out of their way to remind every stranger who strolls into town by mistake that it was here where Kool-Aid was born and bred. But saying it to your face when you’re having a quiet drink by yourself at the bar doesn’t seem to be enough for the local townsfolk. They insist on shouting it over the rooftops. In a splash of color and pomp and ceremony the likes of which haven’t been seen in these remote parts before, Hastings devotes a whole day to celebrate Kool-Aid. Why? I hear you ask. For no good reason, seems to be the logical answer. But, hey, where’s the harm? If some folks want to spend a whole day drinking a sugary drink, who are we to judge? And to be fair, the festival has more to offer than its visitors than just the enlarged figures of the belly pot pitcher and its spawn. There are beauty pageants, drinking contests, and car shows. When I say drinking contests I mean contests to see who can chug down Kool-Aid faster than the rest. Kool-Aid Day is an occasion to celebrate artificial flavors not alcohol.
6. There’s a Dark Side to the Story
This next fact is really dark. If you don’t like stories about cults and maniac leaders who take their followers down a path of doom, then you should skip this part and jump down to the next one where I tell you about mixing Kool-Aid and pickles. You’ve been warned. So our sordid story starts at the end. The place is Guyana and the year is 1978. Cult leader Jim Jones is at his rope’s end and everywhere he looks he sees threats to his cult and his utopia. Jonestown is no longer the paradise he had envisioned it to be. His followers are deserting him and any moment the local authorities will move in and arrest him. As drugs and delusions take over, Jones becomes more erratic in his thinking as well as his behavior. He sees there’s only one way out and since he’s a coward, he doesn’t want to go alone. In a horrific endgame twist, he offers his 900-strong followers a poisoned punch promising them it will deliver them to the pearly gates where Saint Peter will usher them in no questions asked. The contents of the punch that killed the men, women, and children of Jonestown is in dispute to this day. Some say it was made from Kool-Aid while others insist it was really Flavor Aid. However, this tragic event led to the unfortunate phrase that invaded our pop culture: “drink the Kool-Aid.”
5. Try Mixing it with Pickles
Kool-Aid and pickles don’t mix. One is a sugary drink and the other is a salted preserved vegetable. It’s true both have a lot in common. They’re bad for your health since they pump sugar and sodium into your bloodstream and make your heart work overtime. So imagine when you combine them into one weird-looking side dish that you can share with your neighbors in BBQs and get-togethers. It’s not clear who came up with the idea first. But in the Southern states, pickles aren’t pickles until you have soaked them in Kool-Aid. Steeped in the colors and flavors of the sugary drink, the pickles become something truly unique. And, no, the salt doesn’t neutralize the sugar nor the other way round. It’s one hellish concoction where the syrupy fruit oozes both brine and glucose in your mouth. Together. At the same time. Call me finicky, but that’s something I’d never want to try. Now you might think I’m being judgemental. Far from it. If some folks enjoy their pickles flavored with sugar, all the power to them. As long as they don’t try to deep fry it. Wait, that’s actually a thing. Moving on.
4. It had an Original, Whacky Name
The story of Edwin Perkins the man behind Kool-Aid is a well-known one. At least to previous generations that didn’t have social media and the internet. So for the sake of those who don’t know it, we’ll cover it here quickly. Edwin Perkins was an outstanding chemist who spent much of his time outside the lab. There was no white coat for Mr. Perkins. He had no use for one as he went door to door selling medicines and household products. He even went one step further and started filling orders through the mail. This crucial move will help him later when he creates Kool-Aid. But for now, he was happy selling a liquid concentrate which he called Fruit Smack. Why that name? That’s anyone’s guess. Perkins, it seems, had a knack for exotic names that would leave people scratching their heads. Fruit Smack was the precursor to Kool-Aid. In fact, many people would go as far as to say that both products were identical. So why did Fruit Smack fail and Kool-Aid make it? That too is another mystery. Maybe the market wasn’t ready for Fruit Smack. Maybe Kool-Aid needed the Depression to boost its sales. I guess we’ll never know.
3. Kool-Aid Man is a Creepy Mascot
We’ve already seen Kool-Aid Man make it into the video game business and comic books. It even had some small TV roles every now and then. And to be fair none of those appearances were flattering nor impressive. We’ve seen how his comic book didn’t make it past issue three. The video game wasn’t the smashing success one would expect even at a time when video games were taking the world by storm. So it was perhaps no surprise when Time magazine called Kool-Aid Man, the creepiest mascot in 2011. For one thing, a pitcher that wears tights wouldn’t cut a dashing figure. Another thing that put people off the mascot was that every time it made an appearance there was always juice splashing and the mascot seemed to relish making a mess wherever he went. And it doesn’t take much imagination to connect the dots. Tights and mess. If that’s not creepy, I don’t know what is.
2. Kurt Cobain had Kool-Aid but not the Way you Think
We talked before about people using Kool-Aid to dye their hair. The colors are vivid and when they fade it will only cost you the price of a sachet or two to get your lovely hair color back. Perhaps this is why it became a fad in the nineties. Despite the absence of Instagram and Twitter, the fad caught on. And even today you’ll find Youtube videos showing you how to use fruit-flavored powder to give your hair hues that one wouldn’t dream of getting at the hair salon. That’s all fine and to be expected, really. I mean there are worse fads out there. And dying one’s hair like the CMYK color model version of a rainbow isn’t as bad as eating detergent products like candy. But when the famous Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain revealed that he too used Kool-Aid to dye his hair, that came as a shock to many people. It’s not like Cobain didn’t have the money to go to a hair salon and have his hair dyed with liquid gold if wanted. So why was the rockstar resorting to these cheap hairstyles? It turned out, one color took Cobain’s fancy. It’s a truly vibrant red color. He saw it in the glass and thought, I want my blonde hair to look like that.
1. There’s an Invisible Kool-Aid
Speaking of the vibrant colors of Kool-Aid that made it a staple of artistic palettes of clay artists, watercolor painters, and even Easter egg dye. Did you know that there’s a flavor of Kool-Aid that has no color? It’s called the Invisible Kool-Aid and if you’ve never heard of it, that probably tells you something about why people still buy Kool-Aid in the first place. Part of the reason why such a flavor exists in the first place has to do with the complaints of many customers that the drink tends to stain their upper lips and anything it spills on.