“The secret to Chillie Bears is you have to work with them,” says the clerk at Seafood Alley, one of the last local joints to still offer the frozen treat. Seafood Alley sometimes deviates from the traditional recipe (which calls for nothing but Kool-Aid) and freezes pineapple juice, but the rules are the same.
“You have to use your teeth,” the clerk explains.
Chillie Bears’ secrets don’t end there, though. The history and reach of the iced snack — and the underground economy surrounding it — are largely undocumented.
“Every neighborhood had a lady who sold them,” says Brandon Myers, the 31-year old owner of Seafood Alley. Although he describes himself as “out of the loop,” he suspects the practice has dwindled away since he was a boy. “Charleston has changed so much.”
While there’s very little written evidence of Chillie Bears’ existence, Aaron Spelbring of the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center tracked down a year-old post from “Pentherapee” Smith on the More Than a Geechee blog:
Who remember chilly bears? Bae bae lookya I bun the chilly bear queen of ‘merica street heah! I loved the red (cherry) wun and the yella (lemonade) wun. My chilly bear lady stayed in Reed St housing…I’m sure other places in the sowt have something similar but just call them by a different name, but if ya Geechee and from chasstun then you ONLY knoh ‘em by chilly bears. What I would give now to hear Miss Ma’am yell shru mi screen door “chillee beah” and we come a flyin down the stairs.
As Smith suspected, the term “Chillie Bears” is apparently confined to the Lowcountry. Adrian Miller, author of the James Beard award-nominated Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, confessed via e-mail he’d never heard the treat called anything but “Kool-Aid pops.” When Miller followed up on our exchange by asking his Twitter followers, “Pop quiz: Do you know what a “Chillie Bear” is?,” the only affirmative response came from a white man who identified himself as a South Carolinian.
But if the terminology’s local, the phenomenon is widespread. The Tampa Tribune in 2006 ran an obituary for Florie Hansberry, a pastor’s wife who sold “freezer cups – frozen Kool-Aid in 9-ounce cups.” And when Kathleen Purvis, food editor of the Charlotte Observer, helpfully polled her newsroom on my behalf, she heard back from a pair of African-American co-workers who recalled entrepreneurial neighbors selling cups of frozen Kool-Aid.
“In Michigan, we called those “freeze cups”,” one informant wrote. “Even had a family around the corner that sold them for 25 cents each out of their basement.”
Another colleague responded: “I grew up in Norfolk, VA, where we also called them “freeze cups.” A neighbor, “Miss Effie,” used to sell them.”
Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced slang site, defines a Freeze Cup as “a treat usually found in the South at the neighborhood’s candy lady. It’s made of frozen Kool-Aid of any flavor, in either a plastic or Styrofoam cup.” The definition is accompanied by an example of its use: “‘Tyler: Ms. Barb, can I have a freeze cup?’ ‘Ms. Barb: Yeah baby, what color? They all $.25.’”
The same site provides a similar definition for a Cool Cup: “It’s basically frozen Kool-Aid in small Styrofoam cups. These are sold to neighborhood kids for about 50 cents.” (Seafood Alley sells its small cups for 75 cents and large cups for $1.50.)
According to a social media sweep, other terms for the treat include Huckabuck (New Orleans); Ice Balls (Cincinnati); Hard Cup (Kinston, N.C.) Icee Cup (Colleton Co., S.C.) and Freeze Pop (Apex, N.C.) Tim Carman, food writer for the Washington Post, tweeted, “As a Nebraska native (home of Kool-Aid), I remember calling them Kool-Pops.”
Kool-Aid was invented in 1927 by Nebraska’s Edwin Hastings, an amateur chemist who drew his inspiration from Jell-O. Kool-Aid got its start as Fruit Smack, a bottled concentrated drink mix. But the bottles were costly and prone to break during shipping, so Hastings shifted course, extracting the liquid and packaging powder instead. The first packets sold for 10-cents apiece: During the Depression, Hastings lowered the price to a nickel.
As Miller writes, the strawberry variety quickly caught on with African-American consumers. “The drink’s flavor is almost immaterial,” he writes. “It’s about the color. Red drinks are omnipresent at African-American social gatherings. Any time black people get together for a special occasion, if there’s food there, there’s going to be red drink.”
Miller speculates that the color represents a link with West Africa, where celebrations traditionally called for kola nut and hibiscus teas. One of the earlier New World adaptations was molasses and water, used as communion wine in South Carolina’s black churches. It was supplanted after Emancipation by red lemonade, a beverage so firmly associated with the African –American community that it was frequently paired with fried chicken in racist caricatures. By the 20th century, though, the reigning red drinks were soda and Kool-Aid.
“The very name is refreshing,” a Los Angeles Times columnist enthused in 1934, advising her readers to “dissolve a package of, let’s say, lime flavor, in a quart of water and add one cup of sugar to it…freeze like cubes of ice.”
The name of the resultant treat? Kool-Aid Suckers.