From The New York Times
By GUY TREBAY
Published: August 8, 2008
PARDON us, but was that Hoshizaki or Kold-Draft that you wanted with your Grey Goose?
Did you say you like your cocktail with a cube or a lozenge or a tube with a dimpled end? Do you want that iced tea served over crushed or would you prefer fragmented?
Questions like those may seem kooky or even risible to those content to cool a summer drink with chunks of ice from the sturdy waffle-bottomed tray parked next to the prehistoric peas in the freezer. But for some, the idea of consuming generic ice is enough to raise goose bumps and not the good kind.
There are those — and don’t wear yourself out looking for statistical surveys on this one — for whom water in chunky frozen form is a source not merely of interest but also obsession. You can find them, of course — alongside every other compulsive with an affinity group or microcohort — on the Web.
They post recipes for making ice with a level of internal clarity greater than that of a D-flawless diamond. They make YouTube videos of a deliberately Captain Kangaroo-style naïveté that demonstrate the beauties of cubes formed by boiling distilled water once to release any trapped air molecules and then boiled again and frozen before being plunked in a glass.
They forego refrigerator ice altogether in favor of the commercially produced kind, ordering products like the Air AI-100S portable ice cube maker, capable of producing fresh ice in 10 minutes, up to 28 pounds of it a day. Some aficionados, like the country singer Vince Gill (who has a Scotsman), even raise the ante by installing commercial-grade ice machines in their homes. And some set out on a kind of gourmet ice hegira (Safeway to Gristedes to Fairway) whenever friends come to drink.
CAROLYN POLK did not start out as “an ice snob.” For most of her life, Ms. Polk, a 41-year-old St. Louis native, staved off the blistering heat of Midwestern summers with the generic cubes that clunk into a freezer bin like clockwork or drop down a mysterious chute in the refrigerator door.
A couple years back, though, Ms. Polk noted a change in the habits of her guests, who casually started bringing their own ice, she said. Her ice, as it eventually turned out, was apparently not to her friends’ liking.
“Maybe the cubes were the wrong shape or they didn’t taste that good, I’m not sure,” Ms. Polk said last week. “But it got to the point where people came for cocktails, and they were bringing different bags of ice.”
“B.Y.O.I. was a turning point for me,” Ms. Polk said of the moment at which she exited the world of generic ice use and entered another. It is one where a cube, formerly a common and readily available commodity heaved out of supermarket freezers or convenience store cases, is transformed into a symbol of yet another type of consumer connoisseurship — not ice but “ice.”
“Ice is a food,” said Jane McEwen the executive director of the International Packaged Ice Association, voicing a mantra often heard in an industry laboring to lend gourmet associations to something seasonal, perishable and cheap.
The average American buys four bags of packaged ice each year; 80 percent of all packaged ice is sold between Memorial and Labor days. Promoters from within the $2.5 billion packaged ice industry would like to change ice’s hoi polloi associations, give it some of the swank that marketing geniuses injected into bottles of designer water.
Ice, as Ms. McEwen said, is water’s “sister product.”
As a sibling, ice is both mutable and fickle. “There are different forms of ice,” Ms. McEwen explained, and while every cube of ice has the same essential end point — and a purpose little understood in countries like, say, England or France — its use can be manipulated, ice experts say, to improve the quality of the drink it cools. Thus, there is fragmented ice (soda fountain drinks), nugget and cube ice (mixed drinks) and ice that is shaved. There is ice with dimpled ends that is ideal for chewing. There is ice manufactured using patented Japanese methods for eliminating the air bubbles that cloud a cocktail, inhibiting it from becoming a beautiful elixir, frigid and mystically clear.
Bottled water, of course, has lost some of its marketplace luster to consumer impatience with the plastic Everest generated from packaging a substance that runs safe and free from the tap. Ice, on the other hand, seems to be making gains in the market, however modest they may be.
“I never use refrigerator ice because it sucks up smells,” Phillip Redding, a visitor to Napa Valley, in California, said last week, his breath frosting as he plucked a 10-pound bag of Arctic Glacier from a freezer at the upscale Vallergas Market. At $1.79 a bag, the ice was good value, if not exactly top of the line.
The very finest ice, in Mr. Redding’s opinion — a true cube that provides greater surface area for faster drink cooling and does not melt as quickly as fragments do — is not easy to find outside a restaurant.
The worst, he added, is easily identified. It is the kind produced by a certain luxury refrigerator that he has at home. “The ice is crescent shaped and when you tilt the glass, it all rushes to the mouth and hits you in the face and spills your drink,” he added, as he made for the cashier.
Ice snobbery, to be certain, is no trend in the making. Packaged ice accounts for a mere 0.5 percent of all sales at American convenience stores, according to Don Longo, the editor of Convenience Store News, a number that has stayed flat for years. (Cigarettes, on the other hand, clocked a brisk 31.36 percent of all convenience store sales in 2007.)
Among the rare notable developments on the packaged-ice front is an uptick of interest in chewable ice — “like something to eat”— and a growing concern with purity, Mr. Longo said. To satisfy the Freudian cravings of the legions of ice chewers (www.icechewing.com), manufacturers have begun making products like Pearl Ice, Nugget Ice and Chewblet, commodities that in texture fall somewhere between the tongue-numbing chips of a snow cone and the molar-shattering hunks from a freezer tray. As for consumers worried that their ice, like their water, may have picked something up on its way from the icy depths of underground aquifers to the supermarket shelves, groups like the I.P.I.A. have pushed to certify ice made by its 240 members.
“You want to be sure you are getting good ice,” Ms. McEwen said. “If it isn’t certified, how do you know?”
Two years ago, the issue of ice purity was unexpectedly brought into focus when a Florida seventh grader, Jasmine Roberts, made national headlines for a science project that compared the purity of water from ice machines to that from the toilets in a variety of fast-food restaurants.
Testing the samples at the University of South Florida, the student discovered that the water from the toilets was purer than that from the ice machines, some of which were contaminated with E. coli bacteria, among other unsavory things.
“Not all ice is the same,” Ms. McEwen said.
And that, among other reasons, is why Ms. Polk uses the stuff pumped out by her refrigerator ice maker strictly as cooler-filler. Back home in St. Louis, she now buys all the ice intended for consumption at Ladue Market, where a 10-pound bag ($1.75) is dispensed from a Kold-Draft machine.
ASKED what it was about Kold-Draft cubes that made them special, Jerry Meyers, the owner of Ladue Market, who was 13 when the apparatus was installed 40 years ago, explained: “It’s one-inch square, a solid cube, no dimple, no hole in the middle. Plus, there’s something in the ice-making process — they use hot gas — that makes it clear when it’s released down the chute from the machine.”
The result is a finely transparent and classically shaped chunk of frozen water that might have brought a flush of pride to the cheeks of the 19th-century ice king Frederic Tudor, the pioneer who first harvested and shipped ice commercially from frozen water bodies (Walden Pond was one).
Can one, though, truly tell a Kold-Draft cube from one made from distilled and double-boiled water? Is there a quantifiable distinction to be drawn between store bought and homemade? The answer is yes, or at least for Ms. Polk it is.
“I never really thought ice mattered that much to me,” she said. “At first, all I wanted to do was make my guests happy. But once you go there, you go there, I guess.”