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The Coolest Pop Star

As a powerful icon of the season, the cherry Popsicle is summer on a stick.

After dinner in the evenings in the summer, I take a Popsicle from the freezer and eat it while sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard. Not always, but pretty often, the experience is sublime. At its center is the Popsicle's icy sweetness, but a throng of other sensations orbit around. Seeds pop from a nearby caragana bush, lawn sprinklers sigh, gravel crunches under the tires of bicycles passing in the alley, and a woman's voice calls Kyle, a neighbor boy, home to bed. I try to eat slowly, but unfortunately I am the kind of person who bites Popsicles. Light leaves the sky imperceptibly and slowl, like a substance going out of solution. If, as I'm getting to the wood taste of the Popsicle's red-stained stick, I hear the sound of the races starting at the drag strip on the other side of town--the faintly roaring dragster engines, the announcer's cricket like cries--well, for me, that's almost the height of summer happiness right there.

I'm persuaded that it all depends on the Popsicle. When I was a kid, my old-fashioned father used to refer to Jell-O as "water bewitched"; the same term could apply to Popsicles. A Popsicle is mainly an idea. All kinds of summertime expectations enliven what is, in fact, colored and flavored water frozen on a stick. As a confection, it could not be simpler. But as an idea it is shimmery, immense, undefined--a pleasure always waiting for you to catch up to it, like the jingling of an ice cream truck several blocks away. In their primary colors, Popsicles seem to glow from inside with possibility. The basic Popsicle, the ur-Popsicle from which all other Popsicles descend, is the cherry. The success of this flavor is so complete it justifies all the others. I always eat the cherry Popsicles first; by my accounting, one cherry is worth three oranges and four grapes (the other flavors in the classic assortment). The red of a cherry Popsicle resembles no red in nature, and its flavor only distantly calls to mind the fruit on trees, yet somehow the combination of bright color and fake flavor is so emphatic, so right, that it suggests the natural cherry is imitating it, rather than the other way around. In its cheerful artificiality, Popsicle cherry expresses the pure idea-ness of Popsicles.

Nowadays we have forgotten that the original thrill of frozen treats like Popsicles was partly in their technology. The Popsicle, patented in 1924, became widely available with the appearance of affordable refrigerator-freezers after World War II. For people who could remember ice boxes that required real ice, the conjuring of a flavored icicle just for amusement in the middle of summer seemed a kind of wizardry. And unlike ice cream, Popsicles didn't work unless they were frozen solid; when we touched them to our lips, we felt and tasted the powerful new device that had created them. They were last winter's icy snowballs transported intact to July as if through a time-warp hole in the seasons, and with the cruel curiosity of children we watched as they lost their composure in this alien land.

My recent Popsicle-eating ritual is a kind of midlife rediscovery. I used to love to eat these things. Then I got older and developed the usual grown-up after-dinner tastes, most of them involving fancy varieties of alcohol. With age came children, and I have by now cleaned up after my own often enough that most "kid foods"--pizza, fast-food fries--have no appeal to me.

Popsicles are the splendid exception. I like to think I've reached a highly realized spiritual level where I can appreciate that happiness is often much simpler and cheaper than brandy.

I capitalize the P in Popsicle because it is, of course, a trademark, owned by Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream. Like the names of other widely popular products, this one has entered the language as a generic term applied not only to the original but to a multitude of imitators. Good Humor-Breyers still makes Popsicles, and the package says "The Original Brand." America's modern genius for coming up with new forms of treats and snacks has filled the frozen-desserts section with dozens of Popsicle-like competitors, from Tropicana Fruit Juice Bars to Life Savers Flavor Pops to America's Choice Juice Pops to Welch's Fruit Juice Bars. Almost every one of these competitors claims prominently on its package that it is good for you--that it's vitamin-enriched, contains real juice, has no fat, has no sugar. The Popsicle package makes no such claims. Nowhere does it hint that the product inside has any utilitarian benefit at all. The package merely shows the three kinds of Popsicles inside, the cherry and the orange and the grape, in a bright and uncomplicated design as redolent of excitement as the decorative gateway to a fun-house ride.

It's true that Popsicles and their imitators and the frozen juices-on-a-stick that you can make at home are remarkably unbad for you. Aside from sugar (in some of them) and artificial colors and flavors, they don't have much to get your nutritionist upset. Just finding something tasty that you can say that about is satisfying. But I can understand why the Popsicle package doesn't brag about how dietetically healthful they are. Popsicles and their imitators, store-bought and homemade, are pursuing a bigger goal. Ultimately, their purpose is not nutritional but spiritual: They coincide with fun, creating that elusive sensation out of next to nothing with a snap-of-the-fingers magic that is itself part of the fun. You can spend a lot of money and effort and not find a fraction of the fun that's in a single cherry Popsicle.

By the time I finish my first of the evening in the lawn chair, the sun is lower in the sky, slanting through the surrounding backyards. Generally I go inside and get another and have the experience of eating it all over again. By the time I finish my second, the lights have come on upstairs and I can hear the kids complaining their way through bathing and bed. In my work-obsessed grown-up years, I have occasionally missed entire seasons; one minute the trees are leafing out, and the next time I look up it's fall. I now believe such negligence is a minor sin, a sin Popsicles help to keep me free of. In its melting, in its savoring, which is never slow enough, the Popsicle displays the passing of summer's time; its promise of excitement recedes into the future just as the perishable moment recedes into the past. Not many foods fit a season as well as Popsicles fit summer. To everyone I recommend eating a Popsicle a day from the Fourth of July until it's almost too cold to sit outside.

Ian Frazier is the author of six books, including Great Plains, Family and, most recently, On the Rez (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Published July 2000
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