In Praise of Fla-Vor-Ice
Remember Fla-Vor-Ice? Of course you do. The only antidote to triple-digit heat that didn't require a lifeguard, those sickly-sweet sugar-water tubes are forever frozen in childhood memories like curse words in dried concrete.
I ate these things constantly as a kid, but these days, when I'm presented with a frozen hunk of flavored water, it's more likely an artisanal adult paleta. And as much as I love me some Thai basil and seasonal fruits, they just don't hit the pleasure center like old-fashioned high fructose. Which is why now, more than ever, we need Fla-Vor-Ice.
Love at first lick
The date was 1992. The place was a brick-lined stoop in Olympia Fields, IL. My sister, two cousins, and I -- all under the age of still needing a babysitter -- posed for a photo with syrup staining our mouths and hands and porch. When the Jel Sert gelatin corporation (est. 1926!) acquired the Pop Ice Company in 1963, this is the type of Americana they were banking on.
And bank they did: expanding their Big Ice monopoly to include the near-identical Fla-Vor-Ice (my brand of choice), then later Otter Pops -- a cartoony version with mascots like Alexander the Grape (whose empire presumably spans the entire color purple, except the areas where Prince already set up shop).
Regional nomenclature aside, these were the lifeblood of summer birthday parties, adult swim breaks, and afternoons relegated outdoors after your daily allotment of Street Fighter II': Championship Edition victory.
Ninety-nine percent of children were so obsessed with these that they still remember their favorite flavor (mine's blue!), but for the one-percenters out there, here's a brief intro. F-V-I are long plastic chutes filled with water, high-fructose corn syrup, and less than 2% juice concentrate. They're sold unfrozen, packaged in cardboard cases of up to 200, and strung together like rainbow bandoliers of anti-summer ammunition. The six original flavors (grape, lemon lime, tropical punch, orange, berry punch, strawberry) were recently joined by a new class of tropical options that I haven't tried, but I can say with confidence taste like your fondest memory of Kool-Aid.
When you're a kid, your eyes are always bigger than your stomach, so just like with Kool-Aid, the color is half the flavor. The neon hues burn their way straight from retina to taste buds. The drop of berry-flavor additive in the 1.5oz sticks is probably no larger than a pinhead, but to this day the vibrancy of the artificial flavoring still blows my mind. It's like if a robot recreated a fruit flavor based solely on factory-issued descriptors. And it was an especially astute robot.
Fla-Vor-Ice is not a treat for the weak of tooth. After a few hours in the freezer, the plastic cocoons swell and turn from flimsy wands to rock-hard lightsabers. Once you manage to pierce the top, either with your incisors or by asking mom for scissors (like the baby you were/are), the first bite is always a shock. Like jumping into a cold pool, when you come up for air you're shivering, but wearing the type of stupid kid grin that only comes from literally never working a day in your life.
After the initial splash of sugar, you consume it in molar-chilling bites that can be quite painful, depending on your enamel sensitivity. If you can't handle the cold, take it up with the tooth fairy... but unfortunately licking won't get you anywhere. F-V-I is a working-class dessert with all the rigors and rewards you'd expect from something that literally costs pennies. Take comfort, though. For as the ice softens, it gets more pleasant with each bite until your internal temperature has returned to on-the-couch levels, and all that's left in the tube is a backwash slurp of colored corn syrup that's ready for a cameo in a laundry detergent commercial.
Why Fla-Vor-Ice matters
It may seem like a dessert dinosaur in today's world of artisanal ice creams, sheep's milk custards, and ad-free streaming television, but that's precisely why Fla-Vor-Ice is so relevant. There is no pretension, no gimmick, no infusion of locally foraged herbs. There is sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, and Yellow 5 and 6. It speaks to the deeper bedrock of taste buds not yet ravaged by hop addiction, still thirsty for sucrose. As the corn syrup crystallizes, the sharp chemical notes relax and put down their guard. It's as if some maniac let loose a litter of puppies in a prison yard, and suddenly this seems like something you'd let babysit your kids.
If you don't believe me, just go buy some, dammit! I assure you it's worth your money, which isn't a hard promise when a 16-pack costs $1. And since you don't become Big Ice without basic business acumen, the savings increase exponentially in bulk... such that your main expense is the cost of refrigeration. This high fun/cost ratio was probably the selling point for parents, who could throw responsible rationing to the wind and let their kids eat until they couldn't feel their faces at approximately 3.5 pops for $.10.
If you need any more incentive than not being able to feel your face, the fine folks at Jel Sert have got you covered in the Fun Food Ideas! section of their site, where they -- I kid you not -- suggest you use them as ice packs on “minor injuries i.e. ankle sprains, etc.” (To decide what else qualifies as a minor injury, consult your personal scale of parental irresponsibility.)
Although that first suggestion degrades the product to the level of frozen peas, they actually have a few other totally decent suggestions, like throwing them in a cooler instead of ice, putting them in punch bowls to fight dilution, or using them as brushes for watercolor paintings, which is a serious test of whether your child prioritizes sugar rushes or making sticky messes.
It's up for debate whether a stick of F-V-I will ever produce art worthy of a fridge that doesn't belong to someone named mom (Editor's Note: Hi Dan's mom!), but what stands irrefutable is the importance of battling oppression in any and all forms. As a Texan, I can tell you we have loads of oppression, but our biggest enemy transcends color or creed. It is the summer heat. And -- regardless of whether you're in the Midwest, the trash-scented battlegrounds of New York, or, ugh, Florida -- in the face of insurmountable temperatures, there's only one frozen solution you can truly count on.
Lucky for me, I now have 100 of them in my freezer.
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