My Love Affair With Designer Ice
Judging by the red-hot all-American moment frozen H2O is having, I’m not the only one obsessed with the cold stuff these days.
I’m a cubist. I am. Ask anybody who knows me: There’s no one on Earth who loves ice cubes more than I do. I drink iced coffee deep into the winter. I enjoy milk on the rocks. I even ice my red wine, in a tall glass with lime seltzer. I know, I know; it’s not chic. But it’s what I like.
On the face of it, I’d seem a prime candidate for a fridge with an automatic icemaker. I don’t have one. It has to do with our kitchen layout and the placement of the water line, but there’s something more to it. I’m a control freak; ask the kids who write for this mag about me and commas. It’s how I am about ice cubes, too. My first kitchen task every morning is checking the ice supply and cracking some trays if it needs replenishing. Despite my family’s teasing, I travel with my own set of trays, just in case a rented house has a stingy supply. And I supplement that with a purchased bag of cubes upon initial arrival. When it comes to ice, I’m like Lenin and Stalin: Trust, but verify.
Have I always been like this? Pretty much so. We no longer vacation with a lovely couple I’ve known since college because I caught the husband popping individual cubes out of my take-along trays and not refilling them. You might think my husband would find my ice fetish annoying. On the contrary. He knows he’ll always have enough cubes for his nightly martini (shaken, not stirred).
A funny thing happened rather recently, though. In case you hadn’t noticed, the world endured this thing called a pandemic, and people were forced to change their habits abruptly. Oh, not me; my ice-making continued unabated. Folks did stop going out and socializing, though, and that included barhopping with their besties. Instead, we huddled in our homes, tapping our toes with boredom, watching on-demand TV and drinking on our own. And that gave rise to some, well, peculiarities. You know — like widespread bread baking, rampant houseplant hoarding, obsessive decluttering, and a nationwide mania for pickleball.
And then there was the ice. First came the many, many Reddit threads devoted to ice cubes, which I find perfectly reasonable (and informative!). Then there was the TikTok “#icetok” trend of videos by my fellow frosty aficionados, which have gleaned more than 1.8 billion views. The New York Times described one such work of artistry in which a pair of disembodied hands methodically and loudly empties 13 different types of ice from trays into bins. That video, per the Times, has more than 17 million views.
Which gives rise to a question, even from as avid a frozen-cube lover as me: Have we entered a second Ice Age?
History books tell us one man is responsible for our collective American ice fetish: a Boston Brahmin named Frederic Tudor, who, while at a family picnic back in 1805, was enjoying some ice cream and got to thinking how the poor folks sweltering down in the Caribbean would no doubt love to have some, too. With his brother William, Frederic came up with a scheme to float ice from a pond on his estate down to Martinique. When no ship would accept the cargo, he built his own and set sail with 80 tons of frozen water in the hold. To his astonishment, nobody wanted to buy it. Nevertheless, as they say, he persisted, despite several stints in debtors’ prison, traveling our nascent nation trying to convince bartenders to offer chilled cocktails and teaching restaurateurs to make ice cream. As the Saturday Evening Post put it, “The truth is that people never knew they needed ice until Tudor made them try it.” He became rich again, and the ice industry flourished — my dad recalled that in his childhood in Cheltenham in the 1920s, a peddler came to his house to restock his mom’s “ice box” every week — right up until the invention of the electric refrigerator/freezer.
The ability to generate ice on our own only served to increase our appetite for it. According to a 2020 survey by the appliance maker Bosch, a full 51 percent of Americans describe themselves as “ice-obsessed.” (And here I thought I was special.) Survey respondents reported consuming nearly 36 pounds of ice apiece per month, or a total of 400 pounds a year. To give you a sense of proportion, that’s compared to 567 total pounds of food per person annually. And this love affair is nothing new; Mark Twain wrote about it way back in 1895: “There is but a single specialty with us, only one thing that can be called by the wide name ‘American.’ That is the national devotion to ice-water.”
It’s a bit of a mystery why this predilection for chill never really caught on around the globe. But generally, folks overseas think we’re all a little tetched. Another New York Times article, this one in August, quoted various Americans, lured to travel abroad by the end of COVID restrictions and a rebounding economy, who were shocked, shocked, at the frosted stinginess of foreigners. As one Chloe Madison, visiting a town along the Mediterranean with her boyfriend, complained, her plaintive begging for ice was met with “only a few cubes.” Cradle of civilization, Chloe’s arse! That same month, the New York Times Style magazine published an absolutely Shakespearean ode to the contemporary versions of what Frederic Tudor was sawing out of that pond to sell in Martinique:
Water is frozen into spheres, honeycomb hexagons, hearts and butterflies or spiked with the likes of Sriracha and Pepto Bismol (taste is beside the point; the eye is king). Something so mundane as a cube is given intrigue by a spear of mint suspended at its center or a whole cherry submerged with the stem sticking out, pristine as a fossil in permafrost. On the commercial end, designer ice companies like Disco Cubes in Los Angeles offer limited-edition spheres encasing marigolds or lilacs, magnified and ultravivid as if in eternal bloom, calling to mind Victorian glass paperweights.
In case you think I’m exaggerating the sudden Arctic blast of attention being paid to frozen cubes — I’m not. Last year, the world was ice-engaged to a remarkable degree. In March, the Guardian ran an “explainer” for its British readers on the U.S. vogue for TikTok “ice influencers.” (I kid you not.) In May, stodgy old CNN gushed over Starbucks’ new “ice nuggets,” noting that frosted bevs now account for three-quarters of the caffeine giant’s sales. (“Cold has kind of taken over,” former CEO Howard Schultz noted in an earnings call.) May also saw the publication of The Ice Book: Cool Cubes, Clear Spheres and Other Chill Cocktail Crafts, by one Camper English, anointed by Men’s Journal “the American booze world’s ice savant.” Camper English likes to call what you make yourself in your freezer “garbage ice,” but that didn’t stop Wirecutter from offering up reviews of “The Best Ice Cube Trays,” with a top pick of the OXO Good Grips, which goes for $16 on Amazon. If that seems like a lot for one ice-cube tray, stop here, and don’t read the New York Times reviews of countertop ice-cube makers (appliances I didn’t even know existed) or the Business Insider treatise on a company called Gläcé that for the low, low price of just $325 will air-ship you (overnight!) 50 cubes of individually carved “luxury” ice made from specially purified water.
And you know what happens after you buy those suckers? They melt away into nothingness.
While you’re nursing that drink with the $6.50 ice cube, don’t go thinking you can just throw the term “Craft Ice” around willy-nilly. I’ll have you know it’s been trademarked by the appliance company LG on behalf of its newest refrigerator model, the ThinQ, which for the perfectly reasonable price of $2,999 at Best Buy (on special when I checked!) produces four different kinds of ice automatically: regular cubes, crushed ice, mini cubes, and two-inch Craft Ice balls, which if we ever get snow again could prove handy in a playground snowball fight. Lest you think this frigid trend is confined to hotbeds of depravity like New York City and the West Coast, rest assured: We here in Philly have our own ice-meisters in Noah Sokoloff and Chris Vandegrift, proprietors of Philadelphia Craft Ice Co. (don’t tell the Trademark Police!), headquartered in Ambler and providing ritzy restaurants and bars with crystalline cubes embossed with their logos, or, say, monograms, for your wedding punch. Per the Inquirer, their ice, which takes three days to, um, craft in a process that involves a band saw, tap water, filters and industrial freezers, “shimmers like a mountain creek and looks like a diamond.” (It melts, too.)
Why so much money and attention suddenly being paid to something so gossamer, so fleeting? And something so utilitarian, at that? Ice has one job to do: to cool things off. Garbage ice is just as fully capable as craft ice at that.
Maybe it’s the Trump Effect — you know, the general gaudification of America, as personified by 45 (and not, please, God, 47) and seen in such examples of tastelessness as gilded everything. Bigger SUVs and pickup trucks! Bigger border walls! Bigger NFT schemes! That family is the personal embodiment of money sans class; remember the First Lady’s terrifying Christmas trees? (Not to mention rapper Ice Cube working with The Donald on his “Platinum Plan” for Black America — and then having to tell everybody how sorry he was that he did.)
Granted, I can understand why some folks might see in $325 ice cubes something eerily reminiscent of the Roman Empire as it teetered on the edge of collapse, with portly patricians reclining on couches and dining on peacock tongues and coxcombs, camel heels and pastry eggs stuffed with the embryos of unborn birds, until they staggered to their feet to vomit in the conveniently placed rooms designated for that purpose, then returned to their couches to start eating again.
Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “Oh, sure, we’re weird, but we’re not that weird.” How, then, do you explain the article in the Wall Street Journal late last year — that’s hardly the National Enquirer or New York Post, right? — detailing how there’s currently a waiting list of 7,600 eager would-be patrons for the services of a Perkasie “pet psychic” who charges $550 per session to tell you what your cat is really thinking about you?
Sybarites R Us. We should print that on the dollar bill.
Then again, there are apparently still some curbs on our vulgarity. Last August, while on a cruise around Iceland and Greenland, longtime cultural arbiter Martha Stewart posted a selfie of her holding a mixed drink, captioning it, “We actually captured a small iceberg for our cocktails tonight.” For once, the social media shaming poured in fast, per People magazine:
Soon after posting, fans were quick to comment on the unusual ingredient. One follower said “drinking their iceberg cocktails while the planet is in flames is a bit tone deaf.” Another said, “Martha the ice caps are melting don’t put them in your drink.”
Undeterred, Martha doubled down, citing a Washington Post article that termed her transgression “no big deal” and quoted a glaciologist (!) at UC Irvine, Eric Rignot, as noting, “Icebergs float at sea already and slowly melt. Whether they melt in the ocean or in your glass does not make a difference.” A spokeswoman for the cruise line Martha had embarked on defended the iceberg-collecting as well, claiming it was a “common practice” aboard such voyages and declaring, “It’s supposed to be an entirely respectful experience.”
But Martha’s iceberg kerfuffle surely hints at an unconscious motivation for us all to be unaccustomedly ice-aware at the moment: global warming. If the experts say our world is only going to get hotter and hotter, it makes sense to stock up on ice-cube trays of any sort — and maybe even to indulge in that new-model LG. Those of you who scoff at such a frigid obsession just might wind up on my doorstep, ice bucket in hand, begging, like poor Chloe Madison on her Mediterranean vacation, for just a few stingy cubes for your would-be iced tea.
So keep your heaps of scorn to yourself, please, and let those of us who want to indulge our ice-cube whims go ahead and do so. Remember good old “Judge not lest ye yourself be judged”? We all have foibles, and mine really aren’t any of your goddamn business. The big problem with the world right now, if you ask me, is that we all take the slightest variation from our own experiences as an invitation to pile on. If someone is happy to spend $325 on ice cubes or hire a pet psychic, why shouldn’t he or she do so? Or if, say, someone wants to drink red wine on the rocks with a bit of lime seltzer, who are you to say nay? There are all sorts of avenues for creativity and imagination in this world, and it’s not like your fixation on Tay-Tay and Travis or baseball statistics or Insane Clown Posse or coloring in coloring books makes you morally superior. As the song in Walt Disney’s Frozen says, “Let it go! Let it go!”
Incidentally, and while we’re on the subject, if you google “Martha Stewart” and “iceberg,” you’ll turn up an astonishing number of her favored salad recipes that utilize iceberg lettuce, which is widely scorned by Bibb buffs and arugula aristocrats yet is far and away the most popular leafy green on the planet. (It was introduced in 1894 by Philly’s own W. Atlee Burpee company, FYI. And no less an august arbiter of discernment than the New Yorker has sung its praises, so take that, you lettuce snobs.) I’ll have you know that iceberg lettuce is made up of 96 percent water, and as Martha says, that’s a good thing. The only better thing you can do with water is experience for yourself, right in your own freezer, the miracle of transubstantiation. Hey, there was a guy once who built his whole reputation on changing water into wine.
Published as “The Big Chill” in the February 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.