Now, I’m not from here. (I know. Four words like four nails in the coffin of my credibility.) So when I moved to Philly in the summer of 2011, the way everyone talked about “water ice” intrigued me — like it was some transcendental experience that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else in the U.S. I pictured mercurial frozen nectar served up glowing in a paper cup.
“Is it like Italian ice?” I’d ask. “Kind of,” the drooling Philadelphian would respond. “Sounds like sorbet,” I’d speculate. “A little bit,” they’d answer.
But it was more special than that, I was assured. Everyone had a memory of a favorite childhood wooder ice stand. No one could identify exactly what made water ice so unique, so very Philly, but the blind devotion was enough to convince me to try it.
So off to the reputable John’s I went a couple years ago. I ordered cherry, found the nearest stoop, and had my first water ice. As the anticlimactic pureed popsicle melted on my spoon, I eyed a nearby five-year-old’s chocolate ice cream with envy.
Turns out I’ve been eating water ice my whole life. We had it where I grew up near Chicago, too. Or, to put it another way, we had water, colorful fruit syrups, and the technology to freeze the two as one. There was Italian ice; there were Slurpees from the 7-11, which I blew my allowance on; there were Sno-Cones, which parents pushed into their toddlers’ faces at summer carnivals as a cotton-candy alternative.
Whatever form those basic ingredients took, even at that young age, I understood that what I was consuming was basically junk — cheap empty calories designed to curb adolescent sugar cravings; poor man’s ice cream. I can’t bring myself to spend money on it as an adult.
And yet even in 2014 Philly, when Little Baby’s is mixing ice-cream flavors like cordials and Capogiro is drawing national attention for its rich, drool-worthy gelato, water ice remains this town’s herald of summer. One co-worker stared at me in horror when I told her my intention to take water ice down a peg, and dreamily recollected dipping soft pretzels into mango water ice as a kid. “It’s my jam,” she said, sans irony.
I suppose the magic is in the simplicity — cups of water ice are nostalgic tokens from sepia-toned care-free summers past. And that’s fine. I have the same feelings about Capri Sun. But this city is delusional with its idea that water ice is a higher calling than other summer treats; that it belongs exclusively to the people of Philly; that your blended sugar-ice is superior to other blended sugar-ice. You’re all grown up, now, Philly. You can have real dessert.