The Slurpee at 40
Has it grown up?
Lunchtime, Richard Montgomery High School, 1994. For those of us imprisoned in this suburban Maryland moonscape without cars or friends with cars, there were only two options when the bell rang: A) the cafeteria, a desolate fluorescent-lit echo chamber that pegged all ye who entered social contraband for the next four to 60 years; or B) 7-Eleven, the only "restaurant" within walking distance of the school. For obvious reasons, we always opted for the latter, typically indulging in some heroically seed-strewn marijuana on the way over. And so for a year of my life I subsisted almost exclusively on rubbery beef jerky, vaguely defrosted hamburgers, microwaved Big Bite hot dogs that made disconcerting crunching noises, and everything the devilish minds at Hostess ever invented. Each of these "meals" was, of course, washed down with a Slurpee about the size of an aboveground swimming pool—which left our brains perfectly "freezed" so we could get through the rest of the day.
These childhood memories seemed improbably significant the other day when I came across two news items: one informing me that the Slurpee has turned 40; the other that a 7-Eleven has opened in Manhattan, an island I migrated to eight years ago in order to pretend I was never the type of person who drank Slurpees every day. As much as I want to be thrilled, or at least ironically nostalgic, the pop sociologist in me can't help but raise an eyebrow. Here we have yet another instance of adults (in this case New Yorkers) co-opting the territory of teenagers (blended icy beverages) in such a way that the trashy and indulgent becomes hip and respectable. The Frappuccino, the Coolatta: At some point over the last few years, grown-ups developed an ability to order these things and take themselves seriously. Which makes me wonder: Is my beloved Slurpee looking to reinvent itself, Gatsby-like, as a pseudo-sophisticated drinkable dessert? How long until my editor asks me to grab a Slurpee so we can discuss my next piece?
The Slurpee, like so many great innovations and perfectly nice human beings, was an accident. In the late '50s, a Kansas Dairy Queen owner named Omar Knedlik found his soda machine was on the fritz. He tossed some bottles of pop in the freezer and discovered people went into conniptions for the slushy texture that resulted when the soda partially froze. Wheels turned. He invented a machine to slushify water, CO2, and flavored syrup. In 1965, 7-Eleven bought the machines from Knedlik, hired an ad copywriter to coin an irresistible name, and the Slurpee was born. Back then it cost a dime. Four decades on there have been more than 200 flavors, ranging from the earnestly goofball of yesteryear (Blue Blunder Berry) to the quasi-classy of today (Mochaccino). Michael Jackson reportedly plunked down $75.62 to install a Slurpee machine at Neverland Ranch. Eleven million Slurpees are sold each month and hit the eager palate at a cryogenic 28 degrees. In total some 6billion brains have been frozen since the dawn of the Slurpee. Here in the United States the drink is most beloved in Detroit, but, curiously, it's up in the Winnipeg tundra where the Slurpee is most popular—further evidence, at least to this patriotic-when-convenient mind, that Canadians really just want to be Americans.
But enough with the logistics. Explaining the appeal of the Slurpee is a bit like explaining the appeal of pure oxygen or terrific sex: Those who don't get it are simply not to be trusted. Slurpees are divine because of their unapologetic garishness, a giddy reminder that no amount of sugar is ever too much. That the expression "brainfreeze"—meaning the needling headache brought on by drinking something too cold too quickly—was trademarked in 1994 says it all: The point is masochistic, to find pleasure in pain, to embrace evil over good. (Sometimes this is taken too literally: Near my Maryland home, a teen was recently convicted of murdering another teen for trying to buy a girl a Slurpee.) My point here is to say that it's not (too) hyperbolic to equate drinking a Slurpee with surrendering to the greed and gluttony that is being a chronically shortsighted, diabolically unthinking American. In this, the Slurpee serves as a precursor to everything else 7-Eleven is about: namely, smoking cigarettes and drinking too much beer. (The franchise is the nation's No. 1 retailer of Budweiser.)
Or, wait, scratch that: The Slurpee represents everything 7-Eleven was about.
Celebrations of any sort—even those for drinkable sugar—are always somewhat preposterous, and in the strain to muster up excitement, something darker is often exposed: that whatever we're celebrating no longer exists in the form we're busy praising. 7-Eleven may be purporting to rejoice over the Slurpee, its neon-bright mascot, but in truth the Dallas-based franchise has spent the last year trying to distance itself from its identity as a haven for loitering teens looking to ignore their parents and husbands looking to pick up some beer and smokes before heading home to ignore their wives. A great deal of money was spent on an ad campaign lauding 7-Eleven's new line of designer food—turkey and zesty havarti on wheat-nut bread, a blue-corn wrap with turkey and tomatillo sauce, even a "chili-lime" hot dog to compete with the classic Big Bite. In a bygone era the glory of 7-Eleven was simple: Buy the food when you're 16 and it'll still be edible when you're in a nursing home 70 years later. Now they're proud to tell you that the sandwiches are made "fresh" daily. In other words, 7-Eleven is singing the praises of the Slurpee at the very moment when they're aggressively reaching out to an un-Slurpee demographic: self-consciously refined, ambitiously healthy yuppies.
Which brings us to 7-Eleven's glistening new Manhattan outpost. Apparently the location is doing well, having been dutifully covered in the New York Times and worshipped by burnished, carb-counting types looking to dupe themselves into thinking they're not burnished, carb-counting types. Slacker-hating sophisticates can now pretend to be slackers, projecting a false sense of value onto the very suburban childhoods that felt so valueless at the time. What's glimpsed here is a small piece of a much larger and much stranger social machinery: With misguided nostalgia comes a tendency to fetishize the mundane because the truth is either too earnest (I miss being young!) or just plain sad (When did I become this person?). As a result, people no longer simply wander inside and drink a Slurpee, but wander inside and "drink a Slurpee." I'd be concerned about this, worried that the point of the Slurpee will be missed, except years of experience have taught me that after three furious sips, the overly self-aware brain will be frozen, all meta-oriented cells will be annihilated, and, for a few painful seconds, we will all be bumbling freshman again. Truly.
David Amsden is a contributing writer at New York magazine and the author of the novel Important Things That Don't Matter. He is currently writing a personal and reportorial account of middle-class kids in their teens and early 20s.
Images of Slurpee courtesy PR Newswire Photo Service.