HASTINGS, Neb. — Sometimes in the tumult and the strife of 2017, it seems highly advisable to close Twitter, shove your iPhone deep into your pocket, take a deep breath and allow a smiling volunteer to pour you an ice-cold mug of Kool-Aid.
That is what I did on a recent Saturday, at the only known place in the world where you could choose between 20 different flavors of Kool-Aid and then settle in to watch a pair of uber-committed pre-teens readying to do battle in a Kool-Aid chugging contest.
“My favorite flavor is either black cherry or cherry,” says Taidyn Johnson, defending champion chugger in the 7-to-11-year-old division. “I usually have two pitchers in the fridge.”
“Orange,” says top challenger JazLynn Cranford. “I like it even better than Dr Pepper.”
In a state filled with summer festivals, Hastings might have the most nostalgic, the most escapist, the most innocent. It’s called Kool-Aid Days and, as the name suggests, it is centered on that sticky, sugary drink that so many associate with running through sprinklers and catching fireflies and building shoddily constructed forts. When you sip it in adulthood, you can sense the endless summer days of yesteryear.
It tastes like childhood.
“Kind of like riding a bike,” says John Rodriguez, who drove from nearby Grand Island with his two children to wander around Kool-Aid Days on the second day of the three-day August festival. “You remember how.”
And there are oh-so-many ways to remember how at Kool-Aid Days. Wander around the grounds of Central Community College just east of town and you will find a gigantic all-you-can-drink Kool-Aid stand that features the original flavors as well as a bunch of others, like piña pineapple and mango and jamaica, which tastes faintly like hibiscus. You will bump into a range of Kool-Aid merchandise: Kool-Aid T-shirts; Kool-Aid fidget spinners; Kool-Aid lip balm.
You will happen across a dizzying array of contests, one in which they build boats out of Kool-Aid boxes and bottles, another where they choose the cutest Kool-Aid baby, and another where young women compete to become Miss Kool-Aid Days.
And of course you will bump into the Kool-Aid Man, he who loves Kool-Aid so much that he busts through brick walls and yells, “Ohhhhh yeahhhhh.”
“We want grandparents and parents and kids all coming together to talk about their past and their experiences with Kool-Aid and just have fun,” says Pam Bohmfalk, president of the Kool-Aid Days board. “It’s Kool-Aid! We’re all about the fun.”
Hastings hosts Kool-Aid Days for a simple reason: Kool-Aid was born in Hastings. In 1927, a young entrepreneur named Edwin Perkins was searching for his next big thing. Perkins had already developed some popular mail-order products, including “Nix-o-Time Tobacco Remedy,” which purported to end a smoker’s urge to light up by having him or her gargle with a silver nitrate mouthwash and also ingest a powerful herbal laxative. (It seems likely to have ended both the urge to smoke and the urge to live.)
But Perkins was focused on another of his products, a sugar drink called Fruit Smack. He spent months working on a way to dehydrate the drink so he could put it into packets and easily ship it around post-World War I America.
When he succeeded, he added instructions to the packet — just add sugar and water — and gave it a name. Kool-Ade.
It became Kool-Aid. It eventually made the Perkins family very, very rich. And for the next nine decades, right up to present day, children have gulped it down their gullets and stained their tongues and cheeks.
I ask one of John Rodriguez’s children, Javier, if he likes Kool-Aid. His eyes widen in disbelief at my idiocy.
“Have you tasted it?” he asks.
I have. I have walked around all Saturday at Kool-Aid Days, drinking Kool-Aid until jittery, then switching to sugar-free Kool-Aid and drinking some more. And now I take my sixth (eighth? 12th?) cup of Kool-Aid over to the main stage, where the event everyone has been waiting for, the finals of the Kwickest Kool-Aid Drinking Contest, is about to begin.
As I do, I sneak a glance at my iPhone and learn that a neo-Nazi has driven a car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Virginia, injuring 19 people and killing a woman later identified as 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
I feel nauseous, and not from the mango flavor. It feels disorienting, to sit inside this cocoon of an event and be reminded that the cocoon is an illusion, that the hatred and violence existing in the real world will find you anywhere — must be dealt with anywhere — even at Kool-Aid Days.
But, maybe because I don’t know what else to do, I put my iPhone away for a moment and focus on JazLynn Cranford and Taidyn Johnson. These grade schoolers have been eyeballing each other since this morning, when they qualified first and second during the preliminary heat of the chugging contest. (Yes, this contest is so popular that there are qualifying heats.) They are both from Hastings. They both say that they can drink Kool-Aid so quickly because they love Kool-Aid. In this moment, the most important thing in both JazLynn and Taidyn’s world is out-chugging the other.
They poise their little hands in front of their cups. They tense as the master of ceremonies and the crowd count, “1! ... 2! ... 3! ... OOOOOH YEAHHHH!” Then they chug as fast as they can, taking care not to let the Kool-Aid spill down their shirts and onto the table — they have been warned that massive Kool-Aid spilling leads to disqualification. One second passes, two, three as the crowd noise builds, as we realize that this “Kwickest” drinking contest is very, very close.
They slam down their cups simultaneously, and stare at the two judges in front of them who are checking their stopwatches.
One judge has Taidyn at 6.43 seconds. The other has JazLynn at 6.47 seconds. By the tiniest hair on the Kool-Aid Man’s chin, Taidyn has won for the second year in a row.
It doesn’t appear to matter much to either competitor. They smile and accept their prizes of gift cards, and wander into the crowd to find their parents.
“I thought I maybe won, but that’s OK,” says JazLynn. “I had confidence.”
“I will probably buy some Legos,” with my gift cards, announces Taidyn. “It was fun!”
Pam climbs up onto the stage to congratulate all the winners. Then she says this.
“In our country right now we really need things like Kool-Aid,” she says. “We need Kool-Aid more than ever.”
It’s a sentiment every bit as sugary as the drink. And yet, in the moment, I find myself nodding my head.
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Food critic Sarah Baker Hansen is from Omaha. Columnist Matthew Hansen grew up in Red Cloud. As a married couple, they travel Nebraska to share with each other little-known people, unexpected stops and memorable foods. Come along and discover more of what the state has to offer in "The Better Half," an occasional series prepared with support from the Nebraska Community Foundation.