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Watching the Ice Melt in the Kool-Aid: Or, How I Learned to Eat My Vegetables

08/17/2011 12:07 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2011

Sometimes I wish I could talk to the parents I had as a kid and ask them to explain their rationale for some of their parenting decisions back then. Dad is gone. Mom is still around, but today she's just a sweet little old lady who dotes on her grandchildren. Definitely not the 'she-wolf' I grew up with. (Sorry mom, but you were pretty intense in those days.)

One question I would ask them is this: what was the point of making a thirsty child eat their vegetables before drinking that watery Kool-Aid you served with dinner every night?

First, let me explain... Kool-Aid was the drink of choice among the families in my neighborhood years ago. Soda on a daily basis was too expensive. Thinking about it, we really did not have a choice. Parents just put the drink on the table with dinner. It was either Kool-aid or tap water. (And if too much water was added to the Kool-Aid, there was little difference between the two drinks.)

At the time, Kool-Aid came in small rectangular packages in various colors to denote their flavor. My favorites were orange, lemon-lime, and grape. I think the packets only cost a nickel or a dime, and when mixed with water and sugar they made a pitcher of liquid.

Every evening, neighborhood kids were called into their respective houses for dinner. (A very different time... we actually played outside after our homework was done, then came in for dinner. If we got thirsty outside, we didn't have bottled water -- we had outdoor faucets!)

After coming in, we would wash up and head to the table for dinner. We didn't dare open the pots and pans to see what was cooking. And going in the refrigerator without asking was something we did not do (at least not until our teen years.) My husband, who has six siblings, says they were never allowed to go in the refrigerator as kids. (I can understand this when I cook enough for two days and open the refrigerator the next day and see all the food was eaten overnight. I have a friend who used to yell at the top of her lungs at 7:00 p.m. "The kitchen is now closed until tomorrow!")

So 'back in the day' at dinner time, I would get a glass of ice-laden Kool-Aid with my dinner. The problem was, I couldn't drink any of it until I had finished most of my dinner... especially the vegetables. Like all kids, I hated vegetables and would sit there playing with my string beans or peas instead of just eating them and getting it over with.

There were two vegetables that I absolutely could not eat -- okra and lima beans. Today, I can tolerate okra in gumbo, but I hate the taste, smell, look, texture, color -- EVERYTHING about lima beans. Let me say it again... I HATE lima beans. Yet there they were on my plate at least a couple of times a month. Eventually, my parents caught on that I really could not eat lima beans and stopped giving them to me. (But this took a while. Way too long. I love you Mom and Dad, but you were really dense when it came to this.)

For a long time I'd sit at the dinner table watching the glass sweat and the ice melt in the Kool-aid until I finally gave in and ate my vegetables (guess I was a little dense too). I learned to eat the vegetables first, because then I was assured of getting the Kool-aid before the ice melted and it became even more watery. However, whenever lima beans were served, I knew I would not be drinking Kool-aid on that night.

Things are different at my house. My kids go in and out of the refrigerator at will and I don't force them to eat food they don't like. This sometimes requires me to cook different versions of dinner and I am quick to remind them, "When I was a kid we ate what was put before us... no choices!"

Thinking about it... they've probably had more french fries than green vegetables (please don't tell Michelle Obama). I try to give them the vegetables they will eat on a regular basis. Nevertheless, there is one vegetable they will NEVER have in my house -- lima beans!

Linnie Frank Bailey is writing an anthology of essays called Like Sunshine and Rain on growing up black in L.A. 'back in the day.'