Will record heat make Europe embrace the American ice cube?


We were smack in the middle of a punishing heatwave in a nation whose name conjures up images of rosy cheeks and snowy slopes. Here in Switzerland this summer, the temperatures have been so wildly off the charts that the country’s the zero-degree line, the glacial altitude at which temperatures hit freezing, rose to a record breaking height. All across Europe, tourists and natives alike have sweltered in inferno-like conditions. But while the weather has been unique, one thing that has remained nearly universally steadfast in this hellscape of a summer — the drinks have remained firmly room temperature.

“I always held a ‘when in Rome’ attitude about frozen water in my glass — until Rome hit 107.24 degrees Fahrenheit.”

It’s a transatlantic cliche that we Americans are obsessed with our ice, while Europeans proudly prefer their beverages decidedly cube-free. In my own life, I have always held a striclty “when in Rome” attitude about the presence of frozen water in my glass — that is, until Rome hit 107.24 degrees Fahrenheit. When I arrived my Swiss aparthotel in August, I was greeted with a wide screen television, a hair dryer, a Nespresso machine — and not a single ice cube tray. I had to go to three different stores before I found one. And in my seminar rooms these past few weeks, my classmates and I hydrated all day long from large carafes filled directly from the tap, with nary a cube in sight. At times, I found myself fantasizing about nothing else in the world but the satisfying clunk of a torrent of ice from a self-serve soda fountain.

To understand the cultural divide, it helps to recognize why our love of ice is so persistent and deep. “The American obsession with ice is relatively to completely unique on the global stage,” explains Amy Brady, author of “Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks – A Cool History of a Hot Commodity.” It goes back so far, it’s practically embedded in our identity. “About 200 years ago in 1806, a wealthy Bostonian named Frederick Tudor landed on this idea that he wanted to sell ice out of his family estate to people living in warm climates around the world,” she explains. 

His dream took years to catch on, but Tudor eventually succeeded by showing his potential clients how delicious icy things could be — “Icy cocktails on the rocks, even ice water,” Brady says. And as demand increased, so did Tudor’s price. “In the new American ice trade, ice was marketed as a luxury item. Something to aspire to own. Even people who were not super wealthy were like, ‘I want to have a nice cold drink. I want to have an ice box,'” she explains. “By the time we get to the 1950’s, to own an electric refrigerator in which you can store ice was on par with owning a television set or a car. It was a sign that one had arrived at the American middle class.” Decades later, on some primal level, we still associate ice with abundance. But elsewhere, as Brady explains, “When you look at the rest of the world, there are very few, if any, other nation-states whose ideology is rooted in this idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and this upward class mobility.” 

“In the new American ice trade, ice was marketed as a luxury item. Something to aspire to own. “

I have absolutely, on an unconscious level, felt that pull. For entire years of my early adulthood, my refrigerator frequently contained nothing but ice. I may not have had any actual food, but I would not have been caught dead without a few well filled trays. And I’m hardly alone in coasting for a much too long time on the messy flex that ice was the only thing I knew how to make. 

But ice is not just easy and aspirational. It’s also, for many of us, a sound, a texture, a ritual, a pleasant addition to a drink when used correctly. “I love ice, I have strong feelings on ice,” says Allison Kave, an American and the co-owner of the Parisian cocktail bar Abricot. “I do believe — and there’s plenty of research to back it up — that certain drinks benefit from certain kinds of ice. There’s the right ice for the right drink.” But she adds, “Differences are reflected in a few ways. The French feeling about air conditioning and the French feeling about ice are one and the same. You will meet lots of people who say, ‘Oh, God, I can never sleep with air conditioning. It makes me sick.’ Similarly, there’s an aversion to that extreme cold being on your body — or in your body — that really is cultural here.”

She has however been noticing a shift. Now, “people are more aware of cocktails here,” she says. “They’re more interested in exploring them; it’s not just about wine any more. And a big part of serving a cocktail well and right has to do with what kind of ice you’re using and how much.”

“Europeans don’t generally like to buck tradition, especially when it comes to food.”

Food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson offers a few other ideas about why Europeans are less ice-friendly than we Americans. “There are a number of theories,” she says, “all of which have a grain of truth to them. One is that Europeans don’t generally like to buck tradition, especially when it comes to food, and many of their food traditions predate the commercial ice trade by centuries.” She adds, “Another is that they view ice as diluting the beverage or taking up too much valuable glass space. Some also claim icy cold drinks hamper digestion. But I think the most likely answer — besides the fact that Europe historically has been cooler than the US, temperature-wise — is that very cold drinks change the flavor of the beverage.”

I’ll confess that here is where I was ready to protest that I am pretty unconcerned about changing the flavor of my water, but Wassberg Johnson makes a very persuasive counterpoint. “Especially when you’re dealing with a continent that prides itself on its variety of historically bottled waters — a holdover from 18th century spa days,” she says, “even water is expected to have a flavor. In the United States, that is not the case. We don’t necessarily like our water to taste like anything. In fact, water that has a taste is often considered bad (see: iron-rich well water).” And if you’ve ever had a nasty ice cube ruin your drink, you can understand the concern.

Wassberg Johnson says she doesn’t believe Europe will embrace ice en masse any time soon “I’m skeptical,” she says. “I don’t see iced drinks gracing many tables any time soon, although the demand for refrigerated water may go up with the temperature.”

And with the planet getting hotter, we’d probably be better off following our European neighbors’ example instead of wondering when they’ll follow ours. All this ice is heating us up. “The Catch-22 here is that right now the technologies that we have to produce ice are in turn taking a toll on the planet, explains Amy Brady. “The average refrigerator, at least here in the United States, is the largest energy draw in any average American household. And collectively, the cooling industry contributes about 10% of all global carbon emissions, which is not insignificant.”

But Allison Kave wonders if that ship has already sailed. “We don’t have summers any more without a canicule,” she says. “That is just part of life here now, a tnd that’s a very big change from 10, 15, 20 years ago. I think suddenly, people are like, ‘Okay, you know, whatever feelings I had about really cold drinks or an air conditioned apartment are changing,'” she observes. “Because it’s not as easy to contend with what Mother Nature is serving up to us any more.”

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