Staring into the glittery heart of Starbucks darkness

I resisted the siren song of the Unicorn Frappuccino Blended Beverage all day. Then I could resist no more

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published April 20, 2017 1:50PM (EDT)

Before yesterday morning I didn’t know that Starbucks had planned to release a new drink, the Limited Edition Unicorn Frappuccino Blended Beverage, for sale for “a few days only,” nor why I should want one. I still didn’t know the answer to the second question when I found myself giving in to curiosity — we could blame journalism, but hasn’t it been through enough lately? — and pulling into the drive-through of the closest shop.

I am 40 years old. I learned how to drink coffee in a crummy all-night Denny’s, the only thing open in my hometown after 10 p.m. besides the BYOB strip club and the ER, and I take my coffee black and bitter as a Denny’s night-shift waitress’ heart. (One of my best friends worked at that Denny’s as a server the summer after we graduated high school. His words: “At any other restaurant you’re a server. At Denny’s, we’re all waitresses.”) I do not require my coffee to entertain me; even a damn fine cup of coffee is, for me, a utilitarian pleasure. And on the rare occasion that I feel like drinking a caffeinated milk shake, a standard iced soy latte will do.

And yet I am not made of stone. All day yesterday I saw image upon image of Day-Glo lilac-colored middle school fantasy drinks parade by on my social media feeds. The photos, snapped before the first sip to capture the virginal shimmer of undisturbed, be-glittered whipped cream, came from all corners of my social network. The culture journalists did their due diligence first, of course, but even the doctors were treating themselves after a tough day. (Though not the throat specialist — what does she know that we don’t?)

Vogue assured me that Starbucks' releasing a unicorn drink has both solidified and killed the unicorn food trend. I feel about 5 percent better about myself because I didn’t know that “unicorn” is a food trend, that one day food writers will account for it in retrospectives of these dark times to remind us that in the Reagan and Bush I years people thought they were whimsical for putting sun-dried tomatoes on everything, because they had no idea how truly terrible life in America could get, that we would one day seek to crawl inside a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper of the mind, emotional fallout shelters ruled by leering pandas and dolphins, rather than face the reality we have helped to create.

I blame all of you for not telling me about mermaid toast, though.

The corporate description of the “flavor-changing, color-changing, totally not-made-up” Limited Edition Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino Blended Beverage does not sound like something a person should put in her mouth, unless that person had been raised on one of those candy-free communes and therefore never mixed Lik-M-Aid Fun Dip with Dr Pepper to truly know the joy of a mad-science sugar rush. (That person is not me.) “Magical flavors start off sweet and fruity transforming to pleasantly sour,” the promotional copy promises. “Swirl it to reveal a color-changing spectacle of purple and pink. It's finished with whipped cream-sprinkled pink and blue fairy powders.”

A guy down the hall in my college dorm sold "fairy powders"; I cannot say why I am allowing myself to eat the Starbucks version.

If I swallow this edible hypercolor shirt, here is what I would be demanding my body digest before yoga class the next day, per Starbucks:

  • Ice
  • Milk
  • Crème Frappuccino Syrup [Water, Sugar, Salt, Natural And Artificial Flavor, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid]
  • Whipped Cream [Cream (Cream, Mono And Diglycerides, Carageenan)
  • Vanilla Syrup (Sugar, Water, Natural Flavors, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid)]
  • Mango Syrup [Sugar, Water, Mango Juice Concentrate, Natural Flavor, Passion Fruit Juice Concentrate, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate, Turmeric, Gum Arabic]
  • Blue Drizzle [White Chocolate Mocha Sauce (Sugar, Condensed Skim Milk, Coconut Oil, Cocoa Butter, Natural Flavor, Salt, Potassium Sorbate, Monoglycerides)
  • Classic Syrup (Sugar, Water, Natural Flavors, Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid)
  • Sour Blue Powder (Citric Acid, Color [Spirulina, Water, Sugar, Maltodextrin, Citric Acid])]
  • Pink Powder [Dextrose, Fruit And Vegetable Color (Apple, Cherry, Radish, Sweet Potato)]
  • Sour Blue Powder [Citric Acid, Color (Spirulina, Water, Sugar, Maltodextrin, Citric Acid)]

Blue Drizzle. Sour Blue Powder. Pink Powder.

These elements — I can’t in good conscience refer to them as ingredients — are nowhere to be found on the list of pantry essentials in Samin Nosrat’s new no-nonsense cookbook “Salt Fat Acid Heat.” One step forward for the American diet, two steps back.

I had this much time to consider the Limited Edition Unicorn Frappuccino Blended Beverage, and therefore my choices in life, because the line at the drive-through was distressingly long for 9:30 in the evening, suggesting that perhaps everyone in front of me had engaged in a similar battle of the soul all day and had finally collapsed into acquiescence. Our willpower dissolved like potassium sorbate in classic syrup. We hoped at least that a Blue Drizzle before bedtime would grant one good psychedelic dream.

“I guess I’d like a Unicorn Frappuccino?” I confessed to the drive-through speaker.

“Oh. Yeah. We’re all sold out of those,” a voice on the other end replied.

A reprieve, if not absolution from the sin of gluttony I had performed in my heart. Saved from the indignity of an edible glitter nightcap. I could have kissed the drive-through speaker, which sounded like it might have a very pleasant indie-rocker beard.

“Aw, bummer,” I replied.

It was not a bummer, but I felt like admitting that would be rude.

Then I hesitated because I didn't actually want anything else Starbucks was selling.

“People keep ordering them, and I have to keep saying no. For hours I've been ruining people's day,” the robot beard told me, his cheerful voice tinged with an unspoken melancholy. “I make like $8 an hour. That's not enough to kill so many dreams.”

“I’ll have a grande Passion Tango iced tea?”

I tipped well.

I tried, for science and for journalism, to taste the Limited Edition Unicorn Frappuccino Blended Beverage, and I failed. My colleague Erin Coulehan summed up the taste experience for me, so I could live vicariously through her ability to leave the house during daylight hours: “That fairy dust powder is foul.”

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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