COWABUNGA BAY — For 17 years, from 1972 to 1989, I served as that globally recognizable, sly but lovable, zany yet approachable Hawaiian Punch mascot, Punchy.
To be chosen was a great honor. I still often recall the moment when, mere days after barely escaping elimination in the Jellyfish Challenge, the Tribal Council of the American Beverage Association placed upon my head Punchy’s fabled straw hat, dyed Fruit Juicy Red, and said together in one solemn voice: “The Board of Directors of Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group, Inc. has spoken.”
And though that memory remains with me, it has been sadly diminished. For today, it seems, most Americans have all but forgotten this country’s great history of artificially flavored beverages.
Just look around: fresh juice, everywhere. Blenders and presses and gear-laden gadgets on every kitchen counter. College graduates giving up on their dreams to hawk liquefied roughage from trendy trucks. Children, who once lived for their snack-time sugar highs, now forced to choke down cups of collards. And Hawaiian Punch, for years so venerated, now scoffed at, when not wholly ignored, by the new juicerati.
How did this come to pass? How did we as a nation come to turn our backs on such a delicious, nutrional-ish, fruit-esque-y beverage? The question is worth asking, for the story of Hawaiian Punch is in many ways the story of America. It is also my story.
It began mere feet from where I write today, in the shadow of Mount McGarrett, where for hundreds of years my ancestors lived, harvesting the aspartame trees that thrive in the calcium-rich volcanic soils. They learned to brew a restorative liquid and called it “Hawai‘ian Punch”—as red and sweet, according to legend, as the blood of one’s hyperglycemic enemies.
But the world changed, and when our islands became part of the United States we were faced with a choice: to shelter our ways, or share them. Taking inspiration from the indigenous X-treme Snowboarding Peoples of Nepal who had earlier elected to unveil their own land’s mystical neon dew, my ancestors decided to make Hawai‘ian Punch available to Americans of every color and creed.
And so our elixir was branded, and within no time “Hawaiian Punch,” as it came to be called, had become America’s drink. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from or whether your cultural customs did or did not generally involve straws: Hawaiian Punch was there for any person with a thirst, a few coins, and a decent dental plan. It was a democratic drink for a democratic nation.
Fresh-pressed juice, on the other hand, is no democratic drink. It’s a drink of Eastern Bloc supermodels, equatorial despots, and Gwyneth Paltrow—and certainly not of hard-working, hard-chugging Americans who don’t want to blow the rent money to daintily sip sour salad in a glass.
We also hear lots of talk today from “medical doctors” who attended “medical schools” and who tell us that drinks like Hawaiian Punch contain subpar ingredients. Subpar? That would come as a surprise to my grandfather, Volcom‘ahea O‘Neil, who won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry after decades spent synthesizing the world’s reddest Red 40. It would surprise the brewmasters, who ensure only corn syrup of the highest high fructose is oozed into the bubbling Hawaiian Punch vats. And it would certainly surprise a sluggish six-year-old, who but after just a few sips of the red nectar would rocket from his torpor and remain awake, alert, and twitching for several glorious days.
That six-year-old, floating in a blissful Hawaiian Punch-induced mania? Yes. He was me.
And so: it’s time for us to revivify that neglected Polynesian potion. To step away from the juice presses, to drop the kale—and to pick up a frosty can of heavenly Hawaiian Punch.
The author, a former Punchy, has just finished his seventh novel, ‘Among the Finery,’ to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in the fall.