Grocery shopping as a child with my mom was usually a let-down.
To a kid looking for her next junk food hit, trips to the supermarket were filled with stonewalled requests to get my mom to stray from her shopping list; to buy me something sweet, something salty — something bad. But she held fast in her German stubbornness that I’d be better off with an apple.
She wouldn’t budge to the beckoning of the cartoonish pink monster on the boxes of Frankenberry cereal. I so desperately wanted to befriend that guy over a bowl and some milk. In a rare weak moment, she occasionally wavered for big-billed Toucan Sam, but I can count those times.
If anything got a pass, it was potato chips, her personal weakness. Salt and vinegar and barbecue secured prime real estate in the snack cupboard until mindlessly munched while watching Miami Vice or The Love Boat. I grew up knowing the Hostess Munchies far better than I would ever know Count Chocula. I also never had the pleasure of winning a battle begging for Kool-Aid. My mom remained unsmiling when faced with Kool-Aid Man’s grin, but she always made room in the shopping cart for the pulpiest, tartest orange juice concentrate she could find.
“It’s real juice,” she told me. “There’s nothing good in Kool-Aid.”
I refused to believe her. Instead I’d get my fix of the Kool-Aid Man’s technicolor offerings at friends’ homes when I’d go over to play with toys I wasn’t allowed to have either… like Barbie (she was the wrong image to be thrusting on young girls) or G.I. Joe (he was too violent).
My best friend, the boy who lived down the street, always had “freshie” in the fridge, Star Wars action figures at the ready and the Beastie Boys‘ ‘Licensed to Ill’ in heavy rotation. His was the coolest house on earth in my world. All I could offer in return was Play-Doh and that pulpy orange juice, so we usually wound up at his place.
As we got older, those play dates became less frequent and more awkward, eventually reduced to going over and checking on his cat when his family went on vacation. I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid that may have been left in his fridge but only because it would have seemed too obvious that I strayed from my task of indiscriminately dumping Friskies into the cat’s bowl.
By the time I got my driver’s licence my mom was happy to send me to the grocery store with her shopping lists. (As it turns out, she’d never enjoyed those trips much either.) Oh, the thrill to be set free in the aisles where my old sugary friends-in-waiting lived! No one to scrutinize my choices. So down the aisle I went, giddy with excitement to visit Kool-Aid Man—and when I was scolded for bringing him home, I already knew what my answer would be. “Sorry, Mom, you just said juice. You didn’t say what kind.”
His perch on the shelf was right at eye level and I wanted to hug him. But after getting through all the formalities of the proper introduction that eluded us so many times before, I studied him carefully. What was so bad about this guy anyway, with his girth and kindly features…?
I turned him over and read the fine print on his back. That’s when I saw it, the part about adding one cup of sugar—one cup of sugar!—when whipping up a pitcher.
My nose wrinkled.
“Oh my god,” I said to Kool-Aid Man as if I’d just discovered the Beastie Boys were lip sync-ers.
I put him back on the shelf and headed for the orange juice.
Tiffany Mayer is a journalist and the author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). Her mom’s grocery shopping tips stay with her to this day. (As does a love of the Beastie Boys thirty years after first hearing Brass Monkey over an illicit glass of grape Kool-Aid in her best friend’s bedroom.)
She can be found at eatingniagara.com