Red Drinks Have a Special Place In Black Culture

From Kool-Aid to sorrel to ‘red pop,’ we can thank Mother Africa for our affinity for crimson refreshments

Red drink with lemon wedge and metal straw.
Photo: Naomi Rahim#381686/UNI5CrGINS/Getty Images

When I close my eyes and visualize the first drinks I fell in love with as a child, the memories are instant and vivid. The recollection isn’t of a flavor as much as a color — red. Long before I understood the international significance of this diasporic beverage note, or its cultural connections across generations, I had a lifelong love affair with scarlet beverages. And the passion endures. Walk with me along the red drink memory lane; maybe we share similar recollections.

Sorrel

This is the most iconic Caribbean red drink, the one that speaks most to my childhood and my culture. Sorrel is a traditional red beverage made in my home country of Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean at Christmas. My parents would usually buy a big bag of the red sepals that once surrounded the fruit of the hibiscus sabdariffa. Then we would boil them, add cloves, and sweeten to taste. Sorrel is most popular in Trinidad and Tobago at Christmas, but you can find it year-round as a popular flavor of soft drink, jam, shandy, and more.

Eating red foods — red cake, barbecue, punch, and fruit– may owe its existence to the enslaved Yoruba and Kongo [people].

It wasn’t until I migrated that I realized that the red drink I grew up knowing as sorrel was beloved throughout South Florida and commonly known as flor de Jamaica. Sometimes it is sold in teas, agua frescas, or other beverages that are more diluted than I’m accustomed to, but it’s all variations of the same thing from the same plant. My Jamaican friends make their sorrel with ginger and pimento seeds, sometimes also rum. My African friends call it different things as well. Nigerians know it as zobo; Ghanaians call it sobolo. It is beloved in Senegal, where it’s known as bissap.

During Juneteenth celebrations, red food and drinks like strawberry soda and hibiscus tea are part of the tradition. According to acclaimed author and food scholar Michael W. Twitty, “the practice of eating red foods — red cake, barbecue, punch, and fruit– may owe its existence to the enslaved Yoruba and Kongo brought to Texas in the 19th century.” Perhaps my enduring love for red drinks goes deeper and is more significant than I originally assumed.

Kool-Aid

I never knew my maternal grandmother and, unfortunately, my paternal grandmother wasn’t accepting of our family when I was a kid. So when I was little, I sought out grandmother figures everywhere I could. One of them was Mrs. Matthews, a nearby neighbor in our townhouse cul-de-sac. I have vivid memories of her allowing me into her kitchen where she poured red Kool-Aid from a tall, opaque pitcher with a lid that she kept in her fridge. Mrs. Matthews had a gaggle of grandkids herself, so I’m sure she wasn’t trying to pour the neighbor child all her Kool-Aid, but I always wanted more. She made grape, sometimes orange, and I recall an off-brand green sometimes in the mix (probably that rival powdered drink mix made in Chicago, Flavor-Aid). She veered off path from time to time, but red was the one Mrs. Matthews made the most often in my memory. But of the exact flavor, was it cherry, tropical punch, or strawberry? Didn’t matter to me. If it was red, I wanted a second glass. Please and thank you.

Fruit punch

Do you remember your first dinner at a restaurant? The memory is etched into my mind to this day, and it must have been more than 30 years ago at this point. We went to Kapok Hotel’s Tiki Village restaurant. While the adults drank alcohol and my brother joked with his best friend, I was served fruit punch. I have never forgotten the viscosity and heady tropical notes of that red juice, liberally garnished with maraschino cherries. Instant love. No other fruit punch can compare in my memory.

Fruit punch is generally popular in tropical places, and for my school lunchbox, my parents bought little juice packs. Orchard Fruit Punch in the little carton was always my favorite, bright red with no clearly distinct fruit flavors to speak of. Now that I’m grown, I realize this would also make an excellent mixer.

Shirley Temples

Back in my childhood days, kiddie mocktails and candy cigarettes were treats I enjoyed. In retrospect, they are quite the strange concept. I loved those candy cigarettes that came in the Popeye packaging, and I can still recall my first ever Shirley Temple, how fancy I felt. Fun fact — Shirley Temple hated the drink named after her and said it was too sweet! Meanwhile I am happy to sip a Shirley Temple (or even better, a Dirty Shirley or Shirley Temple Black) at my big age. From ages four until this day, I have loved cocktail cherries and that effervescent blend of lemon lime soda and grenadine.

Red soft drinks

Coke and Pepsi have international fame, but in Black communities, we have our own multicolored soft drinks that are just as popular. The SM Jaleel brand of soft drinks started in Trinidad in 1924 and to this day, these brightly colored sodas are popular throughout the English-speaking Caribbean. My brother Dominic was always partial to a soft drink called Big Red, and before he realized his lactose intolerance, he would mix it with condensed or evaporated milk as an occasional treat. In Chicago and parts of the South, a concoction known simply as “red pop” is sold in off-brand stores. And, apparently, in Texas, they make Big Red ice cream as well.

In Trinidad and Tobago there’s another popular red soft drink, kola champagne. Other countries call it champagne cola, and it can range in color from golden orange to bold red. In the ’80s, popular soft drink brand Solo created an advertising campaign suggesting the winning pairing of “a roti and a red Solo,” and the phrase has endured ever since. If you visit a Caribbean roti shop anywhere in the world, you are likely to find crimson kola champagne in the refrigerator, coming back full circle to our history, our ancestry, and the shared international impact of West African cultures where kola nut and hibiscus sabdariffa-based drinks were always cherished.

I try not to drink sweet drinks as much as I used to, but I still keep a package of dried sorrel in the pantry for the holiday season. Nowadays, if I’m making a “red drink,” it probably begins with hypertension-lowering hibiscus tea, not with a packet of powdered concentrate or a bottle of scarlet soda. My choices may be healthier now, but you never forget your first love.

Beauty, hair and culture writer. One of WWD's 50 Most Influential People in the Multicultural Market. Often called the Godmother of Brown Beauty Blogging!