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If Life Gives You Lemons...

Kris Schnee

I recently read an article lamenting the possibility that, in the future, all food will be so thoroughly engineered for nutrition that it will remind you of real food “just like a lightbulb reminds you of summer.” We already have the PowerBar, a block of vitamins with the taste of chocolate-covered sawdust, which I’ll always think of as “PowerSauce” thanks to The Simpsons. We already have golden rice, the new vitamin-enhanced rice that’s too dangerous for the Third World to be allowed to have. Soon we’ll have potatoes and bananas with vaccines inside, leading to french fries and banana splits which are only available by prescription. We have caffeine-free diet soda which probably doesn’t cause cancer. And we have at least one artificial food product which is surely one of the great inventions of the twentieth century -- fat-free fudge ripple frozen yogurt.

But there is one tradition which hasn’t changed much despite modern food science, a tradition of drinking and talking which anyone can appreciate: the lemonade stand.

The lemonade stand is a deceptively simple ritual. A couple of kids in a suburban neighborhood get out a flimsy, sheet-covered card table and put it on the curb. The kids learn the secret of the drink, an initiation into chemistry and cuisine at the same time. What could be a better way to teach kids about cooking than lemonade, a drink loaded (when it’s done right) with sugar? Parents can take pride in the fact that, within ten or fifteen years, their children will have progressed from lemonade to being able to make a decent bowl of ramen. The chemistry lesson comes in with the sugar too: where does the sugar go when you stir it and it vanishes?

The sign is a crucial part of a real lemonade stand. Set against the card table or on a nearby tree, it must simply say “LEMONADE” in big block letters, preferably written in red magic marker. Any more information is unnecessary, except for the price. The price is also important, because the lemonade stand is not just a fun activity, a childhood adventure: it is an introduction to capitalism. What are the ingredient costs? Supply and demand in the industry at large? What are the fixed costs of owning a lemonade stand, including taxes, overhead and wages? Should the stand be registered as a limited-liability corporation to protect shareholders from loss? And what about e-commerce strategies: should the stand be named “Lemonade.com” to attract millions in venture capital?

All these are questions which the young entrepreneurs don’t have to deal with just yet. Through the lemonade-stand ritual, kids are free to cut through the nonsense everyone else worries about, and get down to the root of the free market: getting money for giving people something they want. Five cents a cup, ten cents, a quarter; it doesn’t really matter. Each penny earned is as good as a gold coin.

As usual, Mom takes care of most of the little details, like setting up the table and maybe even helping with the lemonade itself. She also watches the whole enterprise like a hawk. What else could you expect? But she learns something from the experience too. She gets to see her kids preparing, in some small way, for the real world.

A good lemonade stand can turn into a major social event, too. In my quiet neighborhood, I’ve found it possible to live in one house for years without getting to know more than a handful of the neighbors. Yet in one afternoon of patronizing a lemonade stand across the street, I met a neighbor I barely knew, another I didn’t know, and an incoming Wellesley student. There was advertising, with “LEMONADE” written in big chalk letters on the road. The ambiance was fine, with fresh air and sunshine, live music (from a kid with a saxophone) and a reasonable price of ten cents a cup. The kids in charge ran around on the grass when they weren’t taking orders, but it’s good that even they didn’t take the American ritual of the lemonade stand too seriously. It is, after all, still summer.