It took many years at many hippie colleges for me to learn that beverages did not have to be sweet.
Sure, there was the ever-present pitcher of boricha floating about in our fridge to be had with Korean meals, but the star beverages in our household were Kool-aid and iced tea.
And by iced tea, I mean a fistful of Lipton on the stovetop with a mounded cup of pure cane sugar melted into it. Cool the pot in an ice bath in the kitchen sink. Dilute with cold water. The stuff was like liquid candy, like fast moving honey, like the purest hummingbird feed that ever hit your veins.
For the longest time I did not know that people drank the stuff hot and unsweetened, and when I did find out, I could not wrap my brain around it. It was like eating the metal wrapper instead of the Hershey bar.
As for the Kool-aid, if you know it then you know it, and I don’t need to explain it. Except, can I just tell you? Back then, I thought that was what “cooking” meant. Tearing open the coated paper packet of bitter red mystery, measuring out a cup of sugar, adding tap water, stirring with a wooden spoon - the same spoon that was always stained a deep, cherry red for as long as I knew it - that to me was the sum and the maximum of what it meant to make something in the kitchen. In our household, we had every flavor of Kool-aid and an elaborate method of selecting which flavor would be made that day: a carefully presided over process of elimination that involved tossing the packets into the air like joss sticks or a very flat game of yutnori and seeing which ones landed face up.
Even the orange juice was Tang, then later Sunny Delite.
Not that all of it was American. There was also my long-running addiction to Bacchus-D, the original energy drink. I could drink a case of it, and sometimes I did.
Better than all of that, though? The champion of my nostalgic heart, the secret gold medal winner of the beverage contenders?
By far, the sweetest of the sweet drinks had to be my mother’s coffee, leftover in the pot from her morning coffee and cigarette.
Left out on the counter, mysteriously ice cold despite the warm California morning, sweetened with so many heaping spoons of sugar the coffee crunched between your teeth as you drank it, and like a million bolts of caffeine electricity coursing through your seven-year-old veins.
Is it any wonder I clung so to the vending machine coffee here in Korea, or to those oh so convenient “coffee sticks” present everywhere office workers are found?
Truly, it is a wonder I have any teeth left at all.