This past July was the hottest month on record in the U.S. in the past 117 years, according to official numbers. But folks who’ve had to sweat through it didn’t need the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to tell them what they’ve already known. In many parts of the country, this summer has been but the latest in a string of wild weather and consecutive heat waves, which have brought along with them choking humidity, a Swedish sauna-like atmosphere, and that terrible thighs-sticking-together feeling. In Washington, D.C., it literally was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. And summer is not over yet.
The heat has had many of us seeking relief, and some wisdom, anywhere we can get it. For that we turned to aunties and grandmas, the holders of all of life’s knowledge, for their best tricks, tips and memories for staying cool. If you’ve got an empty gourd, some chili, or enough patience to lie still while you appreciate the existence of (if not your access to) modern conveniences like air conditioning, according to these aunties, you’ll be just fine.
I grew up in New York City and when I was a kid they used to turn the fire hydrants on and that used to cool up the block. We did go to city pools, but not that much.
We had fans though and the fans would blow around the hot air and that cooled us off. Fans were a big thing. If you had a few fans in your house or in your window, that was it. They might have had air conditioning with rich people, but we didn’t even have air conditioning then. We didn’t know any different. We’d lay on the floor and play games and stay in the house.
But I’m one of these people who go through things and I can’t remember anything unpleasant. Maybe I’ll ask someone about this—I wonder if anyone’s done a study about this.
Now I’m very fortunate and I’m blessed to be in a place that has central air. Now I just stay out of the heat. I just use common sense.
Growing up our key was to get up super early. We would get up at 5 a.m. and try to be done with work by 9ish because it was hot. And then we’d wait until the late afternoon and that just became a pattern.
I love, to this day, I love early mornings. To watch the sunrise is very, very special to me. So that was a key way to beat the heat during the warm spells.
I grew up in Mexico City, which has a climate that’s pretty interesting. We have hot spells but it’s not like Chihuahua or other places in Mexico that do have long periods of heat. We never had air conditioning, but we did have fans. You know the ones, the ceiling fans which circulate the hot air?
You know, hot food goes really well with hot weather. I don’t know if it’s the spices itself that combat the heat but spicy foods, chili, it just tastes good when it’s hot.
I grew up in Chicago and we had lawn sprinklers, freeze cups, freeze pops and every once in a while, the neighbors would turn on the hydrants. We used to swim in local pools.
I remember catching fireflies and pinching them and wearing them as earrings! We also had s’mores. We used to stick hot dogs on hangers and have weenie roasts at home … either over the grill or we’d make fire in a bucket. [Eating watermelon] was about the coolest thing you could do because you could eat it out on the porch and let the juice drip on you.
We always had kiddie pools you could put your feet in. We had outdoor toys—Slip ‘n’ Slide, and a sprinkler shaped like a gator. We had freeze pops too. One thing you can do now for little girls is to keep their hair braided in the summer to cool them off, and so they can explore more water activities.
I used to equate my summer with music. I liked “Summertime” by Porgy and Bess. I like “Summer Madness” by Kool and the Gang, “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone … [This year] I like “So Blessed” by Jill Scott. It gives me a good, summer feeling!
In Korea in the summertime it’s so hot. And when I grow up we don’t have air conditioning. When I was young, when it was hot we just had ice with watermelon to make it cool.
We make chicken soup, sam gae tang. Sam gae tang makes your body temperature warmer, and you sweat it out, so then you feel better. I guess the sweat cools you off. And the same for the ginseng [in the soup]. And cold noodles, cold nyeng-myun. Sometimes I eat nyeng-myun, but [these days] I also just turn on the air conditioning.
In Korea we eat hot and spicy stuff. This spicy beef and bean sprout soup is also eaten mainly in the summer.
It got so humid and hot in Korea. I just keep taking showers.
Daljit Kaur Gill
I would tell people [who want to stay cool] what my grandma used to say, my mama all say the same things I say to my own kids: Stay inside.
I grew up in a small village in India. When we were small we had no electricity, but we liked it.
We would make buttermilk, and we would make a lemon drink. It’s just like lemonade, with water and sugar and that type of thing.
We had handmade ice cream, all made by hand at home. We also had kulfi. Just the way you eat popsicles, we had kulfi.
We’d also play in the irrigation canals which went to water the crops. We’d throw watermelons into the water in the well and they’d get cool, and then we’d eat it.
You wear cotton saris in the summer. Long sleeves and cotton, cotton is hot weather proof!
In the whole village there was no electricity, so we would use a handfan. I don’t think people today are spoiled. But in America we have air conditioning everywhere. In the store, in the car, everybody has air conditioning now.
In the South I think the thing to remember is people just slow down. You think 10 times as long and use 20 times as many words to say something and the same thing happens to your movements. And then of course you don’t eat during the heat. You wait till the sun goes down.
There’s always water options. You go jump in some water. But in some places you can’t because they’ve got alligators or cottonmouths, and they’re kind of dangerous so you can’t jump in any old lake.
A lot of times people would sleep out on porches. You just drag a mattress out there onto a screen porch.
The obvious thing is sweet tea but it just makes me thirstier. One thing my aunt would do is make fruit salad and we’d eat it frozen. Of course everyone loved watermelon. But I really think peace is the key thing to dealing with the heat. It’s all about slowing down and staying out of the sun.
Oh, if you want to hear another tip, when I was younger I was in Britain and all the British were advising me to drink more tea, because it’ll make your body temperature the same as it is outside. I thought that was hilarious, of course the British think tea solves every problem.
Li Zhen Zhang, as told to Sabrina Ma
In the summertime [in China], we’d make soup with red bean, duck gizzards and winter melon. We would drink it when it cooled. That has cooling elements that help bring down your body temperature.
There is a Chinese root. You skin the root, then you grind it into water. Then you wash and drain it and take the water mixture and let it sit in water 3 to 5 days. The water and the powder separate. Then you take the water out, and it dries out. You run it through a strainer, leave it in the sun and it turns into a dry powder. When you’re ready to make it, you put the powder into boiling water and drink it. It doesn’t taste very good so you can put a little bit of rock sugar in it.
If you’re wealthy and don’t have to go into the field and work, you can buy a fan and find shade. The fans were made out of tree hairs. They’re laid out and woven. In China, if you were rich you would also drink ginseng to cool down.
If you’re not rich and are working in the fields, you take a hollowed out gourd. You fill it up with water and the water inside doesn’t get warm.