Summer Is for Chilly Bears: A Frozen Treat Packed …


Chilly bears (Red KoolAid frozen in plastic cups)

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Summertime in the South hits different. The Lowcountry isn’t just hot as hell; it’s humid and muggy and the mosquitos, flies, and palmetto bugs are relentlessly annoying. But some of my best memories were made during those sticky summer afternoons and nights.

Some days it was so hot you literally couldn’t go outside without risking heatstroke; some nights you’d be so miserable you’d try to sleep and just wake up soaked in sweat. Most days, you were told to either stay in or stay out, and I always chose the latter, and those long, unsupervised days of exploring neighborhoods with my friends always left me with an almost insatiable craving for snacks. And my favorite snack of all was a chilly bear from the neighborhood candy lady’s house.

Usually sold for 25 to 50 cents, chilly bears came in plastic or styrofoam cups that were filled to the brim with extremely sweet Kool-Aid and frozen solid, sometimes with goodies like candy or fruit thrown in. My favorite was “red” flavored, probably cherry, but it could have been tropical punch, or watermelon. It didn’t matter: The flavor was the color. I’d grab my “red chilly bear,” a pickle, a hot sausage, and a pack of Now and Laters and be set for spending the rest of the hazy summer day playing with my friends.

I had my last red frozen sugary-sweet concoction during college. It was also around that time that I realized the beloved chilly bears of my childhood were enjoyed by people all over the country, but they knew them by different names—“freeze cups,” “lilly dillies,” “flips,” “honeydrippers,” “huckabucks,” and that’s just a few. As I grew older, even though I stopped making and eating chilly bears, my curiosity about their origins continued to grow. But it wasn’t until I saw the Chef’s Table episode devoted to Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah that something clicked for me: that the “thrills” Bailey includes on her menu as a palate cleanser are the same as my beloved chilly bears, and frozen cups appear to be an integral part of the African-American diaspora’s culinary heritage.

The history of chilly bears brings together two separate strands of culinary history: the history of ice and, with it, frozen drinks and desserts, in America; and the history of the red drink in African and African-American communities.

In 1637, Sir William Berkeley, one of Virginia’s first governors, received a patent approved by King Charles I of England to have a semi-monopoly on harvesting and storing ice, as long as it did not interfere with the King’s loyal subjects harvesting and storing ice for themselves. In Jamestown, America’s first settlement, an ice pit was unearthed in the 1950s, and it’s believed that it was likely used to store ice as well. As more colonizers came and towns grew, ice would become one of the first agricultural products harvested in the Americas, and was even hailed as “America’s Most Luxurious Crop”.

Colonial American ice storage illustration

[Illustration: Library of Congress]

By the late 1700s, founding fathers like Robert Morris, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson had elaborate ice houses built on their plantations to not only keep their food safely stored in warm months, but also as a means to woo and entertain guests with cold drinks and treats like ice cream and other congealed “juices, creams, and other luxuries.” Washington himself was a huge fan of ice and ice houses: he had his enslaved workers gather ice from the Potomac River during cold months and even reached out to Robert Morris for assistance in building a better ice house. Thomas Jefferson, erroneously hailed as the inventor of ice cream until documents revealed it was his enslaved cook James Heming who learned about it in France and brought it to America, probably had the most famous ice house in the colonies at the time. It survives today at the Monticello Plantation as a testament to not only the ingenuity of the founding fathers but to the enslaved workers who built and maintained it.

In 1799, the first ship of ice was transported from New York to Charleston, South Carolina, one of the largest and most active ports in the country as it was a primary hub for the transatlantic slave trade. By the early 1800s, a man named Fredric Tudor would take the ice trade to new heights and new places. Dubbed Boston’s “Ice King,” Tudor would harvest ice in Massachusetts and ship it all over the world, particularly to places with warm climates, like New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah, as well as ports in the Caribbean, all of which had some of the largest populations of enslaved Africans and their descendants. It’s been noted that many of the enslaved themselves rarely got to enjoy using ice even though they were often the ones gathering, packing, and shipping it. However, fishermen would often have access, and every so often enslaved workers would be given an ice-cold drink when it was exceptionally hot out or “to cool the fever-stricken”.

2 glasses of sorrel with ice on a white background

[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Enslaved Africans provided a labor force and backbone for the newly formed colonies and country of America, but they also brought with them culinary techniques and ingredients native to their homelands. Okra, cowpeas, peanuts, and more were all introduced to the Americas by the enslaved, and hibiscus plants and the kola nut, commonly used in parts of West Africa to make red drinks like bissap and sorrel, were a staple that grew naturally in the New World tropical climates they were forced to live in. The ice trade routes were almost identical to those of the transatlantic slave trade, and it’s tempting to make the assumption that the enslaved Africans may have been able to have their own nostalgic red drinks cooled down with ice. According to Oakland chef, Wanda Blake, the ruby-colored drinks would have been the perfect way to stay hydrated, replenish nutrients, and stay cool in the hot sun. Food historian Adrian Miller found that the red drinks would often be served on plantations to white guests and shared amongst the enslaved during celebrations and holidays.

In the late 1860s, slavery was abolished in America and, with the turn of the century, the ice trade would begin to peak with the introduction of ice manufactured in industrial plants and widespread use of iceboxes and early refrigerators. By the 1930s, manufactured ice machines and the use of air circulation would revolutionize how food was preserved, putting the ice trade to an end.

Refrigeration technology may have spelled the end of the ice trade, but it paved the way for manufactured icy treats. In 1905, a pre-teen by the name of Frank Epperson left a cup of water, flavored soda powder, and a wooden stirring stick on his front porch overnight. The next morning, he woke up to find that the concoction had frozen overnight, creating the first popsicle. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, no one had capitalized on and patented this treat until Epperson decided to do so in 1923. Sold for a nickel, Epperson’s “Epsicles” became wildly popular and transformed into the treats we see today.

Around this same time, mass-produced red beverages emerged on the market, like Kool-Aid and Big Red soda, and for five cents you could buy one pack of Kool-Aid and make two quarts of a flavored drink. As Jim Crow laws were enacted and the Great Migration began in African American communities across the country, these cheap beverages would not only provide physical nourishment, but, as Adrian Miller notes, they also provided a way to keep up the traditions of the red drinks of their ancestors and heritage. These two emergent trends would seem to provide the basis of what would become chilly bears; cheap, widely available red drinks and the widespread use of the technology required to freeze them.

In the beginning of the 1930s, only about 8% of the American population owned a refrigerator, mainly because of the Great Depression. By the end of the decade, that number had skyrocketed to about 44%, growing with the middle class. When many middle class and wealthy white families no longer could afford to have housekeepers or helpers (who were almost always African-American or other people of color), refrigerators not only became a sign of wealth, but a sign that a woman could take care of her family by keeping prepared foods and maintaining a white,sterile, clean environment. However, in 1932, over 50% of the African American population was out of work, and there’s little doubt that a product like the refrigerator would not be commonly found in their homes*.

* However, one African-American man by the name of Frederick Jones would revolutionize refrigeration around the world by creating and patenting the first mobile refrigeration units for trains and trucks in 1940. Frederick and his business partner would create what we now know as the “farm-to-fork” cold chain that would change the supermarket, restaurant, and large food chain industries.

There isn’t much hard data to go off of, but this is where I believe we see the emergence of frozen cups being sold in African-American communities. Many women across the South would sell food, candy, and drinks out of their homes to children and families, and it would make sense from an entrepreneurial standpoint to use the cheap powdered beverages or other sweetened flavored drinks as a means to make an income. Doing away with a wooden stick and using easily accessible products like paper or plastic cups instead of factory produced wrappers would cut the cost of production even more.

Overhead of Chilly bears (Red KoolAid frozen in plastic cups)

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

While I was unable to pinpoint a specific origin for these frozen treats, as I conducted my research and talked to people about them, I found many Black Americans hold similarly nostalgic and proud feelings for Kool-Aid, red drinks, and frozen cups, and that their appreciation is an important part of keeping their history alive. Chef, artist, and poet Omar Tate wanted to change the negative narrative associated with Kool-Aid in the Black community, and he not only serves it at his events, but takes it to the next level and makes his own powdered drink mix. Chef Wanda Blake fondly spoke to me about how in Southern California, her cousin would sell the frozen cups to kids in their neighborhoods, and how she herself keeps the tradition of red drink alive in the sunny state. Chef Rahanna Bisseret-Martinez, a Top Chef Junior finalist, told me how she remembers getting cups of frozen juice as a kid growing up in California and how she hopes to continue the tradition with her younger siblings. Entrepreneur Mike Wood has written about how, when he was growing up in Michigan, he and his sister sold freeze cups when he was only eight years old, and how that experience was probably what jump-started his business mindset.

I did, however, discover that my beloved chilly bears got their name from a place called the Coastal Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Charleston, SC, in the 1940s. They would sell the frozen beverages for a nickel, stuck in a cup that was decorated with polar bears on the outside. When I asked my grandmother and other local elders for more information, they all said that, at the time, African-Americans weren’t welcome in that part of town, and they certainly wouldn’t have been able to purchase anything at the parlor’s counter because of segregation. But many of them remembered having a woman in their respective neighborhoods who would sell her own versions of the treats, frozen in paper, plastic, and, later, styrofoam cups.

I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happened with flips, honeydrippers, huckabucks, or the treats that go by dozens of other names across the country. While the names might change, their history is the same: a simple frozen cup that embodies the traditions, legacies, and the ingenuity of our past.

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