On September 1st, 2016 we learned about

The inadvertent and unsanitary invention of pink lemonade

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you dirty clown socks, make… pink lemonade? Dye from a performer’s tights probably isn’t included in any current recipes for pink lemonade, but then again, neither are naturally pink lemons, since they usually yield nearly colorless juice. The true origins of pink lemonade aren’t completely confirmed, but since it’s basically an issue of aesthetics, there’s room to pick your favorite explanation.

When lemons became libations

Lemonade itself goes back at least as far as Medieval Egypt. The fruit trees had been brought out of Asia centuries earlier, but mainly for use as a decorative plant, producing bright yellow fruit all year long. It’s not known who first tried making a sweet beverage from lemon juice, but there are written accounts of drinking qatarzimat dating to the 12th century. The recipe then was much like what you’d find today, consisting of lemon juice, a bit of zested peel, and a lot of sugar to push the drink from puckering to pleasant. Variations on the lemonade concept later turned up around the world, sometimes with honey, sometimes fermented, but basically sticking to the same formula. And color.

Surprises at the circus

In the 19th century, Americans were enjoying their lemonade more than ever thanks to the availability of ice. Chilled drinks were all the rage, and the saliva-triggering sourness of the lemon juice helped fight parched mouths on hot days better than anything. The other big thrill of summertime happened to be traveling circuses, which were happy to sell this simple drink to thirsty audience members. The pink coloring might seem like a fun marketing stunt, but it probably started out as an accident.

One possibility is that pink lemonade’s pink originally came from some cinnamon candy that fell into otherwise normal lemonade. The flavor wasn’t strong enough to be noticed by patrons, but the color did make a positive impression. The second explanation is that after selling out of a batch of lemonade, a circus vendors whipped up a second batch using the only available water at the moment, which happened to have already been used to wring out some red tights which ‘donated’ some red coloring to the recipe.

In either case, the response was positive, with pink lemonade outselling the yellow stuff whenever it was offered. Since then, people have created recipes with more ‘natural’ sources of pink, like raspberries or strawberries, but this is one food where the most authentic versions may be the ones using artificial coloring. So the next time my kids ask for the pink stuff sold at In-N-Out Burger, the sugar might not be especially good for their teeth, but at least they’re not drinking the leftovers from somebody’s laundry.

Source: The Unusual Origins of Pink Lemonade by Laura Kiniry, Smithsonian.com

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