Slush Life

I've been dining at this cheesy Italian cafe a lot lately. The service is slow and the lasagna is runny and the placemats are paper, but I've become a regular all the same — because they serve frozen sangria.

No apologies. I've lived in Phoenix for nearly a half-century, and as a former suburban kid who grew up in the desert, I rely on my slushy drinks this time of year the way Clevelanders rely on their tire chains in December. If I've graduated from Circle K Icees to frozen wine with a slice of lime, it's really all the same: It's June, and I need something tasty, suspended in slush, to keep my mind off the weather out there.

Slushy frozen drinks are even older than I am. They were first sold in 1959 by Dairy Queen proprietor Omar Knedlik, who began selling half-frozen bottles of pop straight from his freezer after his soda fountain blew a fuse. Omar commissioned a machine from a Dallas manufacturer that would create and dispense a soda that's only half-frozen. This magical machine languished until the mid-'60s, when 7-Eleven snapped them up for nationwide use in its convenience store chain. The Slurpee was born, and a nation of desert-dwellers was slightly less miserable each summer.

My thirteen-year-long romance began over slushy drinks at Fat Tuesdays, a "bar" I would never have stepped foot into had I not been in the company of a connoisseur of frozen beverages (and if we hadn't both just shared an enormous spliff in the parking lot of Arizona Center, I like to believe). Both he and the bartender thought it was hilarious when I ordered Glenlivet on the rocks; I, unaware that this establishment serves only frozen Kool-Aid-and-hooch concoctions, pointed to the wall of swirling slush-makers and blurted, "Then, I'll have the blue one." Two brain-freezes later, I was shit-faced and in love.

My Romeo is in love with the Slurpee. It's a devotion he and his lifelong best friend have nurtured since Hebrew school and on into adulthood, advising one another of new flavors ("The 7-Eleven at 20th Street and Indian School has Pineapple Orange!" and "Do not attempt Banana Ice!") and yammering about various slushy trends (which is how I know that coconut-rum was hot for awhile, and that the wax-lined cups were discontinued in favor of Styrofoam in the late '80s). Special television occasions, like the Miss Universe Pageant, are always toasted by these two with the nonstop glugging of frozen blender drinks, and they always attend 7-Eleven's annual Free Slurpee Day together.

I've heard them discuss at length the Slurpee Expansion Theory, which has something to do with how much room to leave in the clear plastic dome that caps a Slurpee cup; when it's best to abandon the spoon end of a frozen drink straw and just start sucking; and the merits of the Slushy Cup, a specially made thermal mug encased in a liner filled with anti-freeze that sounds more than a little toxic to me. I've listened to diatribes against knock-offs like the Slush Puppy, and to debates about which is better, Quebec's Sloches or Ontario's Frosters.

Romeo and Friend are horrified that I, having grown up around the corner from a Circle K, drink Icees, the imitator of Slurpee in its trademark blue-and-red paper cup printed with an image of a sweater-wearing polar bear. I don't care. I've moved on — to frozen coffee drinks and the occasional margarita. For me, a frozen drink is a frozen drink is a frozen drink. It's more about having something cold and wet (and maybe, if it's from Starbuck's or Garcia's, mind-altering) to put into my mouth. Because, let's face it: There's not much else to look forward to around here in the summertime.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela