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Popsicles are the perfect summer snack

| Friday, April 15, 2005

It's right about this time every year, when the first warm days start popping onto the calendar, that my Popsicle bill starts to skyrocket. April brings a doubling of my usual budget for three monthly boxes; in May I'm setting aside enough cash to buy eight boxes; come July I will have to cut back on essentials like peanut butter and toilet paper to make room for the Popsicles in the grocery budget.

Ours seems to be the designated neighborhood yard, long and flat and grassy. And along with the joy of having lots of neighborhood kids playing in the backyard come certain responsibilities, namely a reliable supply of Band-Aids and snacks. From my years of experience at hosting the neighborhood youngsters, I've learned that when supplying refreshment to a bunch of red-faced, sweaty kids, the frozen-treat-on-a-stick is the best way to go: it begins as food and, soon enough, becomes a drink. My use of the Popsicle has eliminated trips into the house for water and requests for juice bags. I simply stand at the back door with a box of Popsicles in my hand and have the children line up single file. If there are more than five children, I do not take requests for flavors; I remove the paper wrappers myself and distribute the pops in the order in which I pull them from the box. Trades may be made, but I don't get involved in that. For some reason, the orange ones go last.

Orange has always been the last to go. I hated orange as a child, back when Popsicles came in twin sets with two sticks and a little gully in the middle along which my mother would break them apart. After eating our half we would rub the wooden sticks along the rough cement sidewalk, sharpening them into little daggers we'd use to chase each other around the yard. (If word of this gets out, the Consumer Product Safety Commission may ban cement sidewalks--or at the very least Popsicle sticks, and also tongue depressors.)

Most Popsicles don't even have sticks any more. There's a vast variety now: treats that push up and squeeze up, treats made of thousands of little frozen beads (almost impossible to eat), and gourmet pops made with real fruit. Once, my son played Pied Piper to a parade of dusty boys out for a snack, and led them to the freezer where he found my box of Tangerine Fruit Bars. I stopped him just as he was handing them out, rescuing a good $5 worth of frozen fruit from the undiscerning gullets of a pack of 9-year-olds who probably think a tangerine is just a small orange (in which case they shouldn't have wanted them anyway).

"What are you doing?" I cried. My son looked at me as he chewed the plastic wrap off a gourmet ice pop.

"Getting a snack," he said.

"Not those," I said. "They're special. Eat the other Popsicles."

"There aren't any," he said. "Remember• We ate them all yesterday."

I ended up nuking a bag of microwave popcorn and handing it through the door. Each boy got about 12 pieces. Better their hunger than my Tangerine Bars. There are things a girl shouldn't have to share.

Inevitably, one child will wander away from the backyard game and head for the house. One little boy in particular tends to head for the freezer to have a look-see. (If it were my kid I would be mortified.) Last week, this child entered the kitchen, browsed a bit to see what might be available to eat, and noticed the watermelon on the counter.

Now, he had gone too far. April is early for watermelon, but I'd been without it for months. When I found ripe quarters of it in the supermarket, I ignored the price tag and bought it so that my kids, my husband and I will each have a juicy slice for dessert.

"Can I have some watermelon?" he asked.

What should I say, I thought• Did I want to be branded the mean mother, the one who never had anything good to eat• Did I like this child enough to give up a slice of my melon, a portion which, based on the ridiculous price, would have been worth upwards of $16• If I gave him a piece, would he return to the game with watermelon juice on his chin, setting off a parade of melon-beggars to my back door• And really, which of the pack of boys in my back yard was watermelon-worthy?

"I want watermelon," the boy insisted, pointing to it.

I told him I needed it for the cake I was baking.

Then I gave him a Popsicle and sent him back out to the yard.

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