IN HAWAII IN late December, the snow fell all night. Atop the dormant volcano Mauna Kea — the tallest peak in the islands and in the Pacific, rising nearly 13,800 feet above sea level — flakes collected in 10-foot drifts, sealing off the road to the summit until plows could come through. This was no freak weather event; it’s always snowed here. To the kanaka maoli (native Hawaiians), Mauna Kea is sacred, belonging not to humans but to the akua and kupua (deities and supernatural beings), among them the snow goddess Poliahu, who in a long-ago battle with Pele, the fire goddess, halted the onslaught of lava with a mantle of white.
To outsiders, snow in Hawaii has historically been greeted with shock and disbelief, perhaps because it’s so contrary to the idyll of a tropical paradise, free of seasons and thus the toll of time: a land where it’s always afternoon. As the Indigenous studies professor Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart argues in “Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity and Hawaiian Refreshment” (published last December), the introduction of ice as a commodity to the islands — first in giant blocks shipped from Alaska and New England in the mid-19th century, and later produced by the new technology of ice-making machines — enabled colonialists to cool off and gain respite, however brief, from the heat they found so foreign and threatening, both physically and spiritually, in its imagined correlation with indolence and lust; to reassure themselves that they were different from the natives, explicitly aligned with modernity and civilization, and (wishful thinking) above temptation.
Today, many of us might think of ice — in its consumable form; we are not speaking (yet) of the depletion of our glaciers — as ubiquitous: tumbling in convenient little cubes from the refrigerator door, dunked into drinks until the glasses sweat, bedded down in buckets around foil-necked bottles of Champagne. Certainly it’s readily available in much of the world, no matter the climate, although not in areas without reliable access to clean water (a lack suffered by more than a quarter of the world’s population, around two billion people) or the electricity required to power refrigeration (nearly 10 percent, or 770 million). It’s important to remember that what is a bounty to some is still a novelty and a luxury to others, as it was for millenniums.
And yet even among those to whom ice should now be utterly banal, an item of the everyday — a tool, a supporting act, hardly worth notice in and of itself — it continues to hold a strange allure. For what is this ice of ours, this glittering handful in all its mundanity, but nature mastered and summer conquered? The ephemeral is denied: When it melts, we replenish it. It’s so easy to make more; to put off, maybe forever, what comes next.
WATER, FROZEN. SURELY that’s all ice is. But no: These days there’s the question of how it’s frozen — what method, what molds — as well as whether the water has been purified or flavored or isn’t even water at all. In certain circles, the highest praise is reserved for nugget ice, made through a process developed by the Illinois-headquartered Scotsman Ice Systems in 1981 in which thin scrapings of ice are compressed into delicate, chewy pebbles riddled with air pockets. Originally popularized by the American burger chain Sonic Drive-In, this form of frozen water has gained such a cult following that General Electric now sells a countertop nugget ice maker for home use ($579) and Starbucks recently announced that over the next few years it would switch to nugget ice in its drinks.
Those in its thrall revere nugget ice for its texture. But other ice aficionados crave transparency above all, cubes without a hint of cloud, as flawless as diamonds. This is difficult to achieve at home; bars that offer such lucid specimens tend to rely on machines from companies like Clinebell Equipment in Colorado that freeze water on a cold plate, from the bottom up. Seeking the clearest ice possible is a quest of little practical benefit — clarity has only a marginal effect on taste and pace of melt — beyond aesthetic elevation, but that may be justification enough, the San Francisco-based writer Camper English declares in his manual “The Ice Book: Cool Cubes, Clear Spheres and Other Chill Cocktail Crafts” (published this past spring).
For some, size matters. At bars, connoisseurs sip cocktails with ice cubes so large, they command more space in the glass than the alcohol itself. There’s science at work here: Generally, the lower surface-area-to-volume ratio means that the ice melts more slowly and thus dilutes the alcohol less. To patronize a lounge that serves ice on a grand scale is to show that you care about these details; that you have knowledge (and the leisure to acquire such knowledge) of not only the arcana of what yields the best cocktail experience but of America’s storied cocktail tradition, going back to the late 19th century, when ice was hand-carved for individual drinks, a craft revived in Japan in the 1970s by bartenders who approached their profession as scholars and taken up again in America in the 2000s. Such large-format ice has a price: A set of 40 jumbo rocks, from Gläce Luxury Ice Co., based in Davis, Calif., costs $325, a little more than $8 each. (One of the tenets of our age is that no basic is too basic to be exalted — here an $8 artisanal ice cube, there a $695 Brunello Cucinelli white cotton T-shirt.) Unlike nugget ice, which is less an accompaniment than an extra ingredient to be savored as much as the liquid poured over it, Gläce ice aspires to Swiss-level neutrality — the cubes are made with purified water that is purged not only of contaminants but of minerals, for what the company calls a “zero-taste profile” that won’t interfere with, say, an aged Scotch’s contours of smoked hay and marmalade.
Then again, for those less invested in cocktail culture, the charm of such hulking cubes may be simply that they’re bigger than ordinary ice — that is, the ice that plebeians must settle for. Romanticize your life, social media exhorts us, and so maverick shapes and infusions of ice, once the province of high-end mixologists, have become home projects, documented on TikTok in video tours of freezers reimagined as ice libraries. 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.
Occasionally, these innovations go beyond mere prettiness to genuine wit, as with ice cubes for martinis that come with olives and olive brine inside. The martini starts out classic but, as the night wears on and the ice melts, divulging the brine, it gets a little dirty, a little louche. Here the ice is no bit player. It transforms.
OVER THE COURSE of history, ice has been used as a preservative, like salt; medicine, in hope of combating fevers; a means of temperature control at the table, as when tucked under oysters — the cold counterpart to the blue flame of Sterno under hot pot or fondue; an ingredient, whether bringing texture to desserts, from the feathery shaved ice in Japanese kakigori to the crunchier ice in Mexican raspados; and a visual pleasure and bit of theatricality, as with Korean naengmyeon, noodles served chilled in a broth as cold as the deep sea and occasionally, in an elegant flourish, in a bowl made entirely of ice.
The ancient peoples of many regions, even in the desert, found ways to make ice: They left water out overnight in cooling clay vessels or shallow, shaded pools and, as the heat absorbed by the ground during the day radiated from the pools up to the clear night sky, the water would dip below the ambient temperature, enough to freeze. But for the most part, before the development of modern mechanical refrigeration in the 19th century, a steady supply of ice out of season could be obtained only by flexes of power. The Roman emperor Nero in the first century A.D. is said to have sent runners to the Apennines for snow, about 250 miles round trip; the first American president, George Washington, in the late 18th century had enslaved people at his home in Mount Vernon, Va., chisel ice by the ton from the frozen Potomac River — dangerous work, with the risk of the ice cracking and spilling them into the freezing water below — and store it underground for the year, as the science journalist Amy Brady chronicles in her new book, “Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks — a Cool History of a Hot Commodity.”
Nero wanted snow to chill his wine as well as the baths he’d plunge into to revive himself, midparty, so he could continue reveling for hours; Washington craved ice cream. For them, it was an indulgence. Today, many see ice as a necessity, particularly in the United States. In a 2020 survey of American consumers conducted by Bosch, the German multinational that sells refrigerators, 51 percent of respondents identified themselves as “ice obsessed” and 56 percent reported that they drink water only when it’s cold. On average, each respondent consumed nearly 36 pounds of ice per month and more than 400 pounds per year. In comparison, U.S. Department of Agriculture data on “loss-adjusted food availability,” a rough proxy for consumption, breaks down Americans’ annual individual intake as 119.2 pounds of grains and 108.9 pounds of fruit (in 2021), 160.6 pounds of vegetables (in 2019) and 180.3 pounds of meat, fish, eggs and nuts (in 2018). Which means that Americans consume almost as much ice as food.
Is an obsession with ice peculiarly American? Hobart notes that as of 1885, the United States had more ice machines in operation and produced more ice than any other country. “There is but a single specialty with us, only one thing that can be called by the wide name ‘American,’” Mark Twain wrote in 1895. “That is the national devotion to ice water.” Europeans looked askance at it, he later pointed out. This may have been because of the risk of ice cubes being made with contaminated water or because they believed that too much cold might upset the internal system. (Some scholars in medieval Europe had thought cold foods could even cause paralysis.) In China, too, the traditional preference has been for hot or warm water, to encourage blood circulation. To this day, there is no consensus across borders on the temperature at which a beverage must be served to be considered palatable: Americans are famous for complaining about lukewarm beer in Germany (it’s in fact not warm, just less cold) and the absence of ice in French restaurants, which — along with the refusal to use air conditioning, even in the middle of a hundred-degree heat wave — seems to be both a philosophical choice and a show of defiance, repudiating American influence and particularly American culinary choices (however Pyrrhic the victory).
In “Ice,” Brady documents the riches-to-rags-to-riches trajectory of the Boston entrepreneur Frederic Tudor, born at the end of the 18th century, a son of privilege (his father was a judge) and a feckless teenager with no interest in college who, after a trip to Cuba and a bout of fever — which he was certain could have been assuaged had he had access to ice — concocted a plan to ferry blocks of ice carved from local lakes to the tropics. Potential investors scoffed. Ice was free (if you didn’t count the labor of the people who harvested it); why would anyone pay money for it? At first, Tudor’s business foundered and he landed in debtors’ prison. Undaunted, he high-tailed it to Havana in 1815 with a shipload of ice — on the lam, “pursued by sheriffs to the very wharf,” he confided to his diary — and once there went from cafe to cafe, demonstrating how ice could be used to chill drinks and make ice cream. The latter sealed the deal: The dessert became so beloved that, more than a century and a half later, in 1966, the revolutionary Fidel Castro built an ice cream parlor as big as a cathedral. Called Coppelia, it could seat a thousand, all under the political slogan helado por el pueblo — “ice cream for the people.”
Tudor was audacious: He took an object for which there was no demand and made it essential. By the time natural ice was supplanted by ice from machines, he had reaped a fortune. Is this not, too, an American specialty? To start with nothing — water, frozen — and end with empire.
ICE, IN ITS extremity, has often invited moralizing. In the 19th century, the temperance movement touted ice water as an alternative to alcohol — notably not water by itself, which would perhaps have seemed too austere. The ice was the treat, to make up for the sacrifice, and a concession to the stubborn human yearning to feel something. Children were recruited into the Cold Water Army to help spread the word, while wealthy benefactors built public fountains across the land with water piped through wells stocked with ice, which the recalcitrant cities they built them for quietly let go to ruin.
At the same time, there were concerns that ice could have a corrupting influence, especially on vulnerable women. An issue of the magazine Godey’s Lady Book from 1858 indicts “that morbid desire” for iced drinks, “which so often leads to excessive indulgence and fatal consequences.” To drive the point home: “A single glass of ice cream, or draft of ice water … has too often been like a chalice charged with deadly hemlock.”
The first-century Roman philosopher Seneca likewise feared that habitual reliance on ice would deaden the palate and lead to a desire for even colder, more violent sensations simply to convince us we’re alive. This need to incessantly consume was the true moral threat. In “Naturales Quaestiones,” he writes, “Water was the one thing that used to bring down the rich to the level of the common herd, in which the wealthy could not surpass the very poorest” — until the rich found a way to turn water into a luxury: by insisting that it be cold. “How has it come about that no running water should be thought cool enough?” he scolds.
These days in Hawaii, snow is mostly encountered in a paper cup of what is called shave ice. (The verb is rendered in the present tense, almost an imperative.) It comes stained with bright stripes of syrups in flavors like guava and lilikoi. The ice is as soft as the powder skiers dream of, with no jagged edges. When I eat it too quickly, the base of my skull goes numb. Must I think of electricity at such a moment, of what it takes to keep things cold in this climate? The oceans grow warm and rise; the ice, the real ice that was here long before us, melts inch by inch, mile by mile. And still I eat it all, every dissolving spoonful, down to the Technicolor dregs.
Set design by Martin Bourne. Food styling by Suea. Photo assistant: TJ Elias