I feel very strongly about ice. Not the ice with which winter sometimes glazes our streets and sidewalks, but the ice we use to chill our drinks. I don’t like ice made in the freezer section of modern refrigerators. I want my ice to be crystal clear cubes or irregular chunks, not white or gray, fogged with air bubbles or impurities. And I especially don’t like semicircle-shaped ice because it hugs the sides of the glass and forms a dam against your lips when you tip the glass to drink. Tip the glass a little more to start the flow and suddenly a flood of liquid surges over the ice dam, runs down your chin and soaks the front of your shirt. Another abomination, shaved ice, is for sno-cones, not beverages.
I am also particular about how much ice should be in a glass of iced tea. This is mostly an issue at restaurants. Far too often a glass of “iced tea” arrives with the remnants of three or four ice cubes melting on top of wan colored tea. Iced tea should be reasonably dark and served with the glass full of ice. I frequently ask for a separate glass of ice cubes, just so I can properly ice my iced tea.
My fascination with ice started at the tender age of four. As my family did not have a lot of money, we lived a relatively austere life. In 1943, we rented a second-floor apartment in a converted two-story house. Like many homes of that era, it was not equipped with a refrigerator. We used a literal “icebox” to keep foodstuffs cold. Naturally, over a few days the ice melted. Disposing of the water was simple but replenishing the ice supply required a regular visit from the ice man.
The ice man drove an insulated truck filled with large blocks of clear ice…300 pounds when they left the ice factory. Home iceboxes used smaller blocks, around 25 pounds. The ice man dragged a large block to the rear of the truck, then using an ice pick, he deftly chipped through the larger block, gradually carving out smaller blocks of the required size. To get the ice into the house, he donned a thick leather apron that covered his back. Grabbing the newly cut block with large tongs, he slung the ice over his shoulder and carried it to its destination…in our case, up the flight of wooden stairs tacked onto the side of the house and into our kitchen.
The best thing about the ice delivery, from a kid’s perspective, was the scattering of ice chips left over from creating the smaller blocks. In the summer, all the neighborhood kids, me included, would cluster around the back of the truck and gather handfuls of cold, refreshing ice chips to suck on…and sometimes throw at each other…to counter the oppressive Kansas heat and humidity. The next year we were able to rent house that had a small, but real, refrigerator, thus contributing to the trend that did away with the ice man and those beloved ice chips.
My life was not entirely ice-less. Our small refrigerator had a miniscule freezer section that was just large enough for stacking three narrow metal trays in which to make ice. The trays had metal inserts that divided the trays into cube-like partitions. Getting the ice out of the trays was a challenge, but I quickly learned that running warm water over the bottom of the tray released the frozen mass. Spanking the tray-shaped ice with the back of a wooden spoon usually dislodged the cubes from the divider, though not always without shattering a few cubes into fragments.
The highlight of our summer visits with my grandparents was the icehouse attached to my grandfather’s combination gas station/store. Situated on US Route 66 on the northwest corner of Oklahoma City, the station was busy with both local customers and long-distance travelers. Many of the latter, and some of the former, depended on the icehouse to provide ice for their coolers and the few remaining iceboxes. The icehouse was about eight-foot square with six-inch thick walls and a heavy door. My sister and I always looked for opportunities to spend a few minutes in the icehouse.
When I was nine or ten, I convinced my grandfather to teach me how to chip smaller blocks out of the 300-pound block. It turned out that the large blocks were made with subtle fissures built in. Using an ice pick on the fissures easily split the block into uniform sized smaller blocks. I think he was grateful for my help: it allowed him to tend to his store customers with fewer interruptions. When I asked him if one of my cousins could help me in the icehouse and stocking shelves, he replied sternly, “One boy is half a man; two boys is half a boy; three boys is no boy at all.”
The gas station, along with the icehouse, was forced to close in the late ‘40s when the highway department decided to widen Route 66. In the process, they also lowered it by about eight feet, leaving only a narrow berm for customers to park, and requiring them to climb a flight of stairs to get to the store.
Fast forward to 1967. Carol and I decided to revive the annual University of Michigan Department of Psychology Graduate Student Picnic, an event that had been dormant for about eight years. Our closest friends, Meredith and Sandy and their husbands Bud and Arvo, and Nancy and her housemate Sue, all volunteered to help. Each pair peeled, cubed, and boiled 10 pounds of potatoes and a dozen eggs for potato salad. Forty pounds of potatoes fit very nicely in a 30-gallon plastic trash can (brand new from K-Mart and thoroughly scrubbed). Bud was in past his (thoroughly scrubbed) elbows mixing all the ingredients on the morning of the picnic. We also had purchased several cases of soft drinks and six cases of beer (different brands to satisfy different tastes). We carried dozens of hot dogs and hamburgers in an ice chest for cooking on site.
Keeping everything cold on a hot July afternoon involved ice. Lots of ice. Since block ice melts slower than crushed ice, we located a nearby icehouse that sold 300-pound blocks and had them load it into the rental van already filled with picnic supplies. At the picnic grounds I used the picking skills I had acquired under my grandfather’s tutelage to split it into 50-pound blocks and dumped ice, beer, and soft drinks into two 5-foot round kids wading pools, along with the potato salad container. I chipped some of the blocks into smaller chunks to provide a cold bath for the beverage cans.
Someone organized a softball game (grad students vs faculty). Arvo and I took turns cooking dogs and burgers. The beer and soda stayed ice cold all afternoon. The potato salad disappeared. The picnic was a tremendous success, and we repeated the event for two successive years. We could not have done it without ice.
I don’t have any commerce with block ice these days, but I am fortunate to have a dedicated ice maker that continuously fills its bin with crystal-clear ice…not exactly cubes but close enough. I brew iced tea in an automatic pot that heats the tea to just the right temperature (just below boiling) before dumping it onto a pitcher of ice. Since I prefer sweet tea, I make a jar of simple syrup, which I add to the tea. I fill my double-walled iced tea mug to the brim with ice before topping it off with the chilled tea.
Did I mention that I feel very strongly about ice? If you suspect that I feel the same way about iced tea, you would be right.