The History of Hibiscus: The Red Drink Connection

The History of Hibiscus: The Red Drink Connection

For our third edition of History of Hibiscus, we’re sharing insights from American culinary historian, author and former White House advisor Adrian Miller, updated and modified from his James Beard Award-winning book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. For the hibiscus-obsessed, this is a must-read (in our humble opinion) on the long-standing and universal love of the plant.

“Oh, you’re growing red drink.” Few things stop me cold these days, but Chef Matthew Raiford, author of Bress 'n' Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer (Countryman Press, 2021), did when he shared how a senior in his coastal Georgia community reacted to his efforts to cultivate hibiscus. It was a “Eureka!” moment of a sorts for me. I knew red-colored drinks are so beloved in African American culture, but I never knew why. I had a hunch it had something to do with traditional, red-colored drinks from West Africa that are made with indigenous hibiscus flowers (Hibiscus sabdariffa) or kola nuts (Cola acuminata and Cola nitida).

Enslaved West Africans brought those botanical items to the Americas. They gardened these plants on patches of land outside of their slave dwellings, and, ultimately, new beverages emerged that riffed off the red-colored drinks of their West African ancestors. Yet, it was easier to trace this liquid lineage in the Caribbean than it was in the American South. Records of enslaved African Americans growing hibiscus or kola nuts are scarce. I now had the missing link. apparently filed away in, and then suddenly summoned from, the undocumented memories of “red drink” that Black southerners held.

Oh, yes, about that name. One must understand that in African American culinary culture, red is a color and a flavor. A red drink is any beverage that is primarily red in color and usually has a cherry, strawberry, or tropical fruit flavor. Red drinks have such a special cultural resonance that whenever African Americans gather there's usually a red drink in the mix. 

I began thinking more deeply about red drink when I started learning more about "Juneteenth.” Juneteenth is an Emancipation celebration commemorates when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, and they informed enslaved African Americans in the area that they had in fact been freed two years earlier. Though this event began in Texas, Juneteenth celebrations are now held all around the country. On this special day, people commemorate the delayed freedom with speeches, parades, and a communal meal starring “red foods” like barbecue (made “red” by slathering on a tomato-based sauce), ripe watermelon, a red-colored drink (strawberry soda is the preferred choice in Texas), and red velvet cake enhance the celebratory experience. In one of 2021’s more joyous moments, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation that recognizes Juneteenth as a federal holiday, and President Joe Biden signed it into law.

For centuries, West Africans have made and enjoy a hospitality drink called “bissap” that infuses water with the red flower petals of the hibiscus plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa). As late as the 1700s, enslaved West Africans cultivated hibiscus in Jamaica to make “sorrel,” a beverage similar to bissap. In Jamaica, sorrel is strongly associated with Christmas because hibiscus flowers bloom around that time. Eventually, hibiscus beverages spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, where it is also known today as “agua de Jamaica (Jamaica water)” or “flor de Jamaica (Jamaica flowers).” Hibiscus also traveled eastward from West Africa. In many Arab cultures, a hibiscus drink called “karkade” is quite popular.

Author's photo of bissap

The other traditional drink is kola (also spelled "cola") nut tea. This may give you pause because every cola drink you've ever had has been brown, not red. True, but look at the ingredients on any cola drink made in the U.S. and you'll likely see that caramel coloring has been added. Kola nuts are red or white, and like hibiscus, West Africans use them as a gesture of hospitality to guests. Kola nut beverages are made by steeping the kola nuts in, or adding ground kola nut powder to, water. By the nineteenth century, kola nuts had additionally acquired wonder drug status. They were believed to make bitter water palatable and to be a stimulant. In the latter case, people would just chew on the nuts. For these two reasons, kola nuts also crossed the Atlantic and were used on Caribbean plantations as a supposed "energy drink." Given its medicinal reputation, it's no surprise that pharmacists like John Pemberton used kola nut extract as a key ingredient in a new medicinal drink that he created called Coca-Cola.

A number of red drinks have lubricated African American social events over time, and they shared the same formula as kola nuts and hibiscus tea: get some water, color it red, and sweeten to taste. Red lemonade made with cherries, strawberries or food coloring was the choice in the 1870s and 1880s, and then transitioned to red soda pop in the 1890s as carbonated beverages became more prevalent. By the 1920s, powdered drinks reigned supreme with the invention of Poly Pop and Kool-Aid. By the way, I believe that red Kool-Aid is the official soul food drink, but more on that later.

Author's photo of Kool-Aid

In addition to these public celebrations, red drinks have easily become a staple in African American homes and soul food restaurants. In fact, a soul food restaurant is immediately suspect in my eyes if it doesn't offer at least one type of red drink. It would be like to going to a craft brewery that doesn't offer an India Pale Ale.

Yet, there seems to be a generational shift currently under way that's challenging red drink supremacy. For me, this is an alarming development. Young people under twenty appear to have a pronounced preference for grape Kool-Aid alternatively called "purple drink" or "purple drank." Comedian Dave Chapelle famously captured this trend when he offered his thoughts on purple drink and Sunny-D on his short-lived and dearly-departed TV show. This is really throwing me because I believe the children are our future, that we should teach them well and let them lead the way. But when it comes to abandoning red Kool-Aid for purple, well, I just don't know.

Perhaps all is not lost. Interestingly, we're seeing a resurgence of red drink popularity. As consumers search for healthier alternatives to carbonated beverages and other sweetened drinks, they are increasingly choosing hibiscus-based drinks. Such drinks are touted to have a number of health benefits including lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Hibiscus has also become an increasingly popular flavoring agent for alcoholic drinks. Whatever form these drinks take, each sip is meaningful. It’s one more step towards quenching my thirst for connection to African heritage people around the world.

In the coming weeks we'll publish a number of red drink recipes Adrian Miller has shared with the Ruby team!