Sunday, August 13, 2023

Too Much Ice?

Americans love their ice, but how much is too much?

Europeans make fun of our obsession with ice and cold drinks, as well as the serving of water with meals.  In a country with excellent tap water (places like Flint, Michigan, excepted) free water is seen almost as a right - and should be. Sadly, public drinking fountains are becoming scarcer and scarcer - and bottled water more prevalent.  Gee, that just happened by accident, right?

But seriously, cities like New York have some of the best tap water in the world, and that is due to the foresight of our forebears who dammed up lakes in the Catskills and preserved the aquifer, and dug amazing tunnels all the way to the city to carry this water - a task that is still ongoing to the present day.

But I digress.

The problem I have with ice is that many places will fill your glass with ice and then pour the drink into it.  As a result, a 12-ounce glass may contain only a few ounces of actual drink, and an 8-ounce cocktail glass, even less.  Again, this just happened by accident, right?  Now, granted, in a lot of places, they offer "free refills" on fountain drinks, so there is no dark conspiracy to cheat you out of your 12 ounces of Co-Cola.  But in other places, refills are not free, and getting people to order two or three drinks is a pure money-maker.

With cocktails, even moreso, as they cost nearly ten times as much as soft drinks.

I was curious as to whether with soft drinks the restaurant is really saving money.  After all, ice costs money and soda-pop drinks (particularly fountain drinks) are cheap.  But the point isn't that ice is cheaper than the fountain soda (it likely is) but that it encourages the consumer to order two or three fountain drinks, or if in a fast-food or convenience store, to opt for the larger size soft drink, as they know that most of the drink will be ice.   Of course, today, many of such outlets are self-serve (and offer free refills) so the point is moot.

You don't need to fill a glass with ice to cool a drink, but rather only half-fill it.   Nevertheless, every bartender I see fills the glass to the brim with ice before adding liquor and mixers.  Maybe again, this makes little difference - if you pour in the liquor first, it will reside at the bottom with the ice and if the bartender is looking at the side of the glass (as opposed to measuring shots) the amount of "fill" will be the same, whether the glass is half-full of ice or full.  With a full glass, well, you are just using less mixer, I guess.

Of course, for me, the point is really moot.  I have tried to avoid high-fructose corn-syrup drinks for the last 20 years or so.  Before then, I was like most Americans - a soft-drink fiend, gulping down big gulps as though a 500-calorie "drink" was something normal to consume.  Over time, though, you accumulate a spare tire that is very hard to get rid of.

Why do Americans love ice so much?  Well, it is a local custom, just as countries all over the world have local customs.  Ice was a big deal in America even before the invention of ice machines and mechanical refrigeration (or evaporative, for that matter!).  During the winter months, ice would be harvested from lakes in the North and Northeast United States and stored in ice houses, sometimes buried undergound and insulated with sawdust.   Ice stored like that could last all summer long and be used to keep food fresh or put into the "ice box" in the kitchen to keep food cold.  Ice was even shipped to Southern climes in ships stuffed with sawdust for insulation.

I am not sure if that was a tradition in Europe.  I am guessing that England didn't have a lot of lakes that froze over.  From what I have read, America and Norway were centers of the "ice trade" and maybe that is why many Western European countries didn't fancy ice as much - it was an expensive commodity.  I would have thought that Germany and Holland, where rivers froze over, would have their own ice harvesting, and perhaps they did.  But for whatever reason, the idea of icing drinks never really took hold.

My Mother grew up with an icebox, and the day they got their first GE "Monitor Top" mechanical refrigerator was a big deal.  Now they could buy frozen "Birdseye" vegetables like the rich people did!  Before then, the "ice man" came every day, in his wagon, with blocks of ice he would deliver with big steel tongs.  He would carry it right into your kitchen and put it in the ice-box to keep your food cold.  On hot summer days, if you asked nicely, he would chip off a sliver of ice for kids and they would suck on it to keep cool.  That wasn't that long ago.

But as a major producer and exporter of ice, Americans became use to it as a cheap commodity.  And maybe that explains our preference for iced drinks and cold beer.  Or maybe not.  It's just a regional custom and people in other countries, with other customs, are no better or worse.  So I fail to understand when people in Europe mock us for icing our drinks, or Americans mock Europeans for serving "warm beer."

I had a client from Sweden once, and he came to visit.  I asked him if there was anything he wanted to see or do in Washington and he said, "I want some of that lager beer you drink here, served ice cold!  And those huge onion rings!  Battered and deep-fried!" So I took him to The Wharf in Old Town - a tourist trap, arguably, and they brought us huge glass goblets, frosted from the freezer, full of Miller Beer - along with a basket of scalding hot giant union rings, deep-fried in a beer batter with panko crumbs.  He was in heaven and I had a new appreciation for our native cuisine.

He claimed that you can't get these things in Sweden, and I have no reason to doubt him.  But I am sure they have other things there that are just a good and probably better.  Different countries, different customs.

It reminds me of the conversation I had once with someone about an Ethiopian restaurant in Crystal City. "You know, they eat with their hands!" he said, in horror, as he mashed a greasy cheeseburger and fries into his gaping pie-hole.  "Really!" I replied, "how interesting!"

Funny how that works.