In response to the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War, I recently blogged about soul food joints in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War era. Another soul food angle during that time was Kool-Aid, often in the form of red drink. Here’s an excerpt from the red drink chapter of my book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a time:
The allure of red drinks within the black community isn’t limited to just special occasions. Like we saw with chitlins, Kool-Aid became an important feature of military life for black troops serving in the Vietnam War. Kool-Aid served a slightly different, but related, function. Chitlins were about building a community while in a foreign environment. Kool-Aid was about connection to their home back in the United States. James E. Westheider writes in The African American Experience in Vietnam,
For the men and women stationed overseas, these [black] items were particularly important because most of the service personnel in Vietnam often felt vulnerable and alone, and needed that tangible connection with life back in the United States, or what they called “the real world.” African Americans stationed in the United States could shop off-base for black magazines, hair-care products, and other necessities that were not available on-base, but for blacks posted outside of the United States, especially in South Vietnam, this option was seldom available. . . . In 1968, Kraft Foods shipped a free supply of Kool-Aid for the entire base at Kontum after Sgt. [Allen] Thomas wrote to the manufacturers and told them that the GIs stationed there missed the soft drink.
Vietnam veterans like J. Carle Abernathy, a staff sergeant E-6 stationed near Denang, underscore the bond with home. He told me that getting a package of Kool-Aid was like getting a letter from home, and it was always red. “The brothers would call home for red Kool-Aid,” Abernathy told me, “but they wouldn’t even have to ask for it.” If the troops came upon a good source of drinking water that was pure enough, they would whip out the package and make some Kool-Aid right on the spot with the sugar in their rations. Black media also reinforced the importance of Kool-Aid for the troops. In 1966, Cleveland’s black newspaper The Call and Post reported that Private First Class Samuel Malone, a graduate from the local Glenville High School, “wrote his family that he had received the food package that they sent to him last March. Most of all he enjoyed the packages of Kool-Aid.” In 1968, the same newspaper reported, “Men in Vietnam have asked for items such as assorted greeting cards, plastic containers for Kool-Aid and Kool-Aid to put in it among other things.” When the Philadelphia Tribune held its First Annual Paddy Poll of servicemen in Vietnam, one of their ten worst experiences was “a fly in your Kool-Aid.”
Do you know a Vietnam War veteran? Ask her or him about any memories they may have of getting a care package containing packets of Kool-Aid. Please have them contact me because I’d love to hear those stories as well.