Wife stealing, compulsive chewing and artisanal carving – the cool history of ice in America
August 10th, 2012
02:00 PM ET
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I have a problem. It's called pagophagia. I'm a compulsive ice eater.

While some people may crave chocolate and others can't function without coffee, my vice is ice. I'm not alone.

Recently, I was in the CNN cafeteria filling four (count 'em, four) 32-ounce cups chock full of ice (my morning ice run). A woman approached me and said, "Ah! Someone else who's crazy about ice!" She then pointed to a co-worker at the salad bar and said, "We meet up here each day to get our ice together."

Kumbaya! I had found more of my people, and we bonded over the ice machine.

The medical dictionary describes pagophagia as an "abnormal condition characterized by a craving to eat enormous quantities of ice." Some doctors say it may have to do with the body's lack of iron. As I take blood thinners and am often diagnosed as anemic, it seems logical.

Dr. Bruce Raphael, a hematologist at NYU Langone Medical Center says it's well-documented that people with severe iron deficiencies have strange cravings. But why ice?

"To my knowledge, there is no answer as to why this is the case," Raphael admits.

My ice obsession set me on a mission to find out more about the transformation of ice from delicacy to commercial product to artisanal food.

A Chunk of Ice History

Until the early 1800's, ice was usually "harvested" from lakes, but considered primarily as something associated with the winter season. Small, family-owned ice-cutting businesses surfaced, with the initial "ice men" typically carving 300 pound blocks out of northern lakes, packing the ice in sawdust and transporting it via rail. Ice was primarily used for refrigeration, stored underground and retrieved for cooling hospitals and luxury hotels.

John Gorrie, an early ice innovator, was a physician and inventor, living in Apalachicola, Florida in the early 1800's. Gorrie's concern for patients suffering from yellow fever motivated him to, "invent a method for cooling their rooms," according to experts at the John Gorrie Museum State Park.

He invented a machine that made ice, and in 1851 he finally, received the first U.S. patent for mechanical refrigeration. Today, he is thought of as "the father of refrigeration and air conditioning."

But despite Gorrie's good intentions, it was a man named Frederic Tudor from Boston, whose determination as a businessman crowned him the "Ice King." Tudor is given credit for "changing the way the world's population consumed beverages."

He's described in proceedings passed along through the Massachusetts Historical Society as a man with the "ability to harness the New England climate to serve the needs of man."

By 1835, despite landing in a debtor's prison multiple times, Tudor managed to ship nearly 200 tons of ice halfway around the world, all while traveling the country convincing barkeeps and drinkers alike that once they tasted their drinks with ice, there was no going back.

By the turn of the 20th century, iceboxes had become commonplace in restaurants, grocery stores and homes. Ice had become a staple in the United States, with people posting signs in their windows letting the ice man know how much should be delivered.

Some in the industry recount a long-standing rumor that during World War I, while many husbands were off at war, wives became perhaps too friendly with the accommodating ice man. They say the tremendous success of the home refrigerator was spurred by returning service men anxious to replace the icebox, and thus the ice man who delivered it.

John Gorrie and Frederic Tudor are just a few of the people who cracked the ice conundrum, but they are legend among those in the business of ice making today. These days, the ice industry typically brings in about 2.5-3 billion dollars a year. They were certainly on to something.

Ice Is Food

Remember that fad diet known as "The Ice Diet" in which people claimed eating ice actually helped you lose weight? (The theory being, your body would use extra energy to heat the ice you'd digested.) Although most nutritionists, doctors and physicists say that diet doesn't work, I've still come to think of ice as a key part of my diet. At the very least, I'm taking a healthy amount of water into my system every day. Not only does it quench my thirst, it fills my stomach for a while.

Reddy Ice bills itself as the largest manufacturer and distributor of packaged ice products in the United States, supplying 3.2 billion pounds of ice per year. Their slogan: "Ice is food."

Angie Wallander, Reddy Ice's Chief Administrative Officer says when supplying thousands of customers coast to coast, they take that slogan seriously. For those who may question that slogan, the Food and Drug Administration has regulated ice as a food.

Wallander says the most popular format of ice they sell is cubes, although during the summer season she says they get plenty of requests for 50-pound blocks of ice that people want to throw into their pools to cool the pools down. (Note: Wallander says they no longer supply this, as it can pose a danger to someone diving into the pool.)

Ice industry experts and mixologists point to some basic ice forms, and say knowing when to use them makes all the difference in your ice experience. These include:

- Block ice
This was the type of ice used by businesses and bartenders alike when ice was first being introduced into daily life. Large blocks would be cut into smaller blocks using a combination of tools including ice picks, mallets, hammers and shavers. It's come back into vogue today, but more on that in a bit.

- Ice cubes
According to a number of large commercial ice production companies, this is the most popular selling form. Ice cubes are considered the utility players, used them for drinks "on the rocks," mixing, shaking and stirring.

- Cracked ice
This ice is typically smaller than ice cubes, so it melts faster. Often used when making frozen drinks, it's gentler on blades found in blenders and food processors.

- Shaved, flaked or crushed ice
This is typically found in fountain soda machines, slurry makers, or used in the packing and displaying of food items such as seafood.

On a personal note, these are also my favorite types of ice, as they're the most gentle on the teeth, not to mention they make for great water ice or snow cones. This, along with small pellet, tubular or nugget shaped ice is so much of a favorite of mine that I was full-on ready to go into childbirth, knowing that I'd be permitted to eat ice to my heart's desire.

The Ice Storm

Seasonality is key in the sale of ice, with summer, not surprisingly, being the biggest season. Michael Busch, VP of Sales and Marketing at Arctic Glacier, an ice company based in Canada, says in the summertime they sell about 60 percent of the product that they'll sell all year.

"Much like a squirrel, the goal is to produce as much as you can during the winter and store it, and then have it ready to go in the volume that's needed," Busch says.

A heat wave, he adds, takes demand to another level. On average, in the month of August, Busch says they sell about 5 times as much ice as in the month of February. During a heat wave that number could jump to ten times as much.

July 2012 was declared the hottest month on record for the United States according to NOAA. In summer months like this, "The challenge is having the infrastructure, the trucks, and the manpower and being ready," Busch says.

William Daraino is known at his New York ice distribution company by both employees and customers as "Chilly Willy." For him, and his brother "Cool Carl," it's been a busy summer season.

"When the weather hits over 90 degrees on five consecutive days it gets out of control," Daraino says. "When you're dying of thirst, who wants a warm drink? When you're walking the streets of Manhattan with a hand truck of ice, everyone looking at you tells you they think it's a cool job. Meanwhile, you're sweating bricks."

"We also deal with a lot of caterers. In the summer, everyone's blood pressure goes sky high until the ice gets there–then they smother it with a cold cocktail," Daraino says.

"Ice is generally the forgotten food," according to Michael Busch. Arctic Glacier, specializes in packaged ice for "human consumption," and packaged ice products for commercial use. For example, it's also used as an ingredient in bakery products containing yeast (like bread) where the ice chills the water used in the dough, helping to control the rate at which the dough rises.

About six percent of Arctic Glacier's business is industrial use. For example, ice is used to help cement obtain a certain temperature to avoid cracking when it cools. Busch says he's glad to see the industry increasingly adhering to food company standards. Arctic Glacier's ice must meet standards for FDA and National Safety Foundation inspections, among others.

But Busch warns that even still, a portion of ice sold in the U.S. is hand-bagged and doesn't necessarily meet standards. "It needs to be made clean, with purified water."

The International Packaged Ice Association (IPIA) works with companies and individuals with the primary focus of promoting food safety and good health through the sale of ice. Ice that has not been properly handled has been shown to contain e-coli and other bacteria.

Another growing trend in ice Busch refers to as, "boutique premium beverage ice," which is ice created just for consumption. He describes this as generally a "nice cube shaped for a highball (or special cocktail)." Clear cubes are what folks are looking for, he says. "Ice typically isn't a very sexy item, but we think it is."

Wallender agrees, saying Reddy Ice works to produce "perfect cubes," describing them as dense, with fewer or no air bubbles.

Ice Is an Ingredient

Richard Boccato owns Dutch Kills, a bar in Long Island City, and is a founding partner of Hundredweight Ice. To him, ice is a key ingredient.

Boccato is considered a trend setter in the world of specialized classic cocktails, in part due to their "Ice Program." In Boccato's career background as a bartender, he says he used to spend two to three hours a day cutting ice for use in different styles of drinks.

He used larger format pieces of ice that served alternative needs in various drinks, and quickly learned what styles were more beneficial to the drinks he was serving. "We don't disparage ice machines; this is just our way. We manipulate frozen water to make for a superior cocktail experience."

Artisanal Ice

When Boccato opened Dutch Kills along with Sasha Petraske (both had already collaborated on other successful establishments), the goal was to open an 1890's-style salon that served classic cocktails, and to keep the tradition of cutting ice by hand.

But at the same time, when it came to ice, he also wanted to go a step further by also working with some ice block machines. He first went to Okamoto Studio, an ice sculpting studio where Boccato was introduced to master ice makers and sculptors and their ice makers - including the Clinebell ice block machine.

Physics and Proportions

The state-of-the-art Clinebell CB300X2 ice block maker, freezes ice much in the way ice freezes in nature - only in reverse proportions (from bottom up instead of top down like in a lake). The water is constantly agitated to free it from impurities, bubbles and fissures. As a result, the ice is also crystal clear.

The machines produce 300-pound blocks over a two to three day cycle. "We'll always have a stockpile so we're never out of ice, and we average between 300 and 600 pounds per week," Boccato says.

But for those who buy from Hundredweight, Boccato says they're buying the kind of "high-end, customized ice I'd expect to find in custom cocktails." By May 2012, Dutch Kills had two Clinebell machines installed.

Boccato says ice must be cut to "maximize the surface area, and reduce the dilution rate to the lowest common denominator for the duration of the life of the cocktail while it's in front of the guest," emphasizing that properly cut ice keeps the drink colder for longer. He says it generally takes a bartender between two to two-and-a-half hours to cut all the ice for service in an evening - and they do this seven days a week.

He points to other establishments who've modernized the tradition of using block ice behind the bar-including Manhattan's 21 Club, Commander's Palace in New Orleans, and Bar Basso in Milan, Italy.

"It's about the relationship between the surface area of the cube, the liquid volume of the glass-all those things contribute to the life of the drink. We want to maintain the ultimate integrity for the drink," Boccato says.

I asked Boccato what he thought about the concept of the ice man of the past versus now. Of the shift, he says, "Initially, a lot of people who couldn't afford fridges relied on the ice man; he was a fixture in the community who was considered a minor hero of sorts."

Asked if he too had heard the stories about the their alleged involvement with housewives during the first World War, Boccato simply laughed. "I can assure you, that as modern day 'ice men,' we engage in no such behavior."

But it's a cool story to chew on.

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Filed under: Bars • Culture • Food History • Obsessions • Sip


soundoff (104 Responses)
  1. Brenda

    Yes, I went through a seven-year stage of ice-chewing. I vividly recall the panic I felt when one glass was almost empty and a nearby source of ice for a refill had not yet been identified. I vividly recall the guilt I felt for the agony I put others through. When a problem with fibroids was taken care of, my iron levels restored, and the compulsion went away almost overnight.

    December 25, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  2. site

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    August 24, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  3. Leesa

    I worked at Sonic for 8 years. The "ice ladies" were a common, core customer to our day. One of our "ice ladies" would come at least three times a day and order 4 Large cups of ice (32 ounces) every time. Her car was literally full of unused straws and cup carriers that she didn't use. She finally stopped coming as often, and told us she was having to "ween" herself off of the ice. She also told us that she had been diagnosed as anemic. We did have other customers though that would come and order soft drinks with extra ice "packed full!" they would say. These customers would drink their small cmount of liquid and then chew on the ice for the rest of the day. Some customers would just order bags of ice, and eat it from the bag all day. Some would order cups of it and request a spoon to eat it with. Either way, we were always selling tons of ice, and when our ice machine couldn't keep up with all of the drinks we were selling the complaints would start rolling in. In all, I had a great 8 years serving these customers, and will always remember the "ice ladies".

    August 14, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  4. Lynn

    I used to chew ice until I cracked a molar. My mother chews ice all day (she's anemic, has leukemia and aslew of blood disorders before that). Since she has dentures, she just keeps the Super Glue handy! =)

    August 14, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  5. Jackson

    I started eating ice one day, and before long HAD to have it. I was eating all of the ice from 2 ice makers at home, plus buying a bag every day. The worst ice is the crescent shaped that most home refrigerators make. I have a super powerful Jenn Air blender and can make snow with it – that's the very, very best. My favorite restaurant for ice is the Varsity in Atlanta. My least favorite ice to buy is Reddy Ice – it's too big to chew very easily. Love, love, love the ice from Twice the Ice machines. As soon as my ice consumption got to be so huge, my doctor tested and confirmed iron-deficient anemia. Once I started on iron supplements, my ice craving was gone. Any time I start feeling like I NEED ice, I start taking iron again. The really bad news is that I am still having dental work as a result of several cracked teeth – thousands of dollars so far. If you're going to eat ice, I highly recommend crushing it to snow – but good luck finding a machine powerful enough.

    August 14, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  6. Cindy

    Sometimes chew, but rarely due to dental work. I do like to chew the finely crushed ice found in Sonic beverages.

    August 14, 2012 at 6:05 am |
  7. Pat

    I used to chew ice CUBES compulsively. Then the doctor put me on an iron supplement and the compulsion was gone in a few days. Strangely, I still have some teeth.

    August 14, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  8. jennifer

    I, too went thru the addiction to ice for many years – soft, crushed ice was my preference. I was severely anemic, almost at the point of needing a transfusion. I began taking the iron my Dr. recommended & within a couple of weeks, I no longer had the craving.

    August 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  9. Stacey

    Yes, I did chew ice and then I was diagnosed with anemia caused by uterine fibroids, uterine polyps & a cyst. Following surgery the cravings stopped. BTW, it took five years and several doctors to get the diagnosis. Had I mentioed the ice chewing from the start it may have caused the doctors to take a look further instead of telling me that my symptoms were part of the aging process. I was in my late 30's when it began.

    August 13, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  10. all_I_want_for_xmas

    I used to chew ice all the time, until I broke my second tooth due to the habit. Didn't learn the first time...

    August 13, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  11. mdonln

    I didn't just chew ice; I was addicted to it! I had to have it all the time and would regularly pay for several huge drinks then only get the cups full of ice! I got to know all the best places to get the various kinds – the small flat rectangular shaped ones were my favorite. The constant crunching drove my friends and family crazy but, at that point, I just couldn’t stop (and really didn’t want to).

    I was told many times it could stem from being anemic but I always quickly dismissed that notion because I was eating a well-balanced diet and never felt tired or lethargic (like they say you should when you’re anemic). In fact, I was very active and working out a lot (many hours on end) during that time. I was full of energy and had never felt better.

    It turns out my ice addiction absolutely was caused by an iron deficiency. I was extremely anemic but I had no idea and showed no symptoms (besides the ice cravings). My iron was so low, my doctor wanted to send me directly from his office to the hospital for a blood transfusion. I convinced him to let me take the iron pills instead and see how things went with that first. Luckily, my iron levels went back to normal. I don’t remember how long it took but the intense ice cravings went away too. I found all this out rather accidentally. I went to donate blood, which I had often done, but this time I was rejected. The drop of blood they put in the solution showed that something was wrong. That’s what got me to go to the doctor in the first place. At the time, I was young and healthy and had always avoided doctors like the plague.

    A few years later, I became anemic again. This time it was caused by undetected internal bleeding that eventually got so bad I passed out and had to have emergency surgery so they could identify the source of the bleeding and close it up. I had lost a lot of blood and did have to be given extra pints of blood. As I recuperated, the ice cravings returned but were not as severe as they had been. I was eating a lot of steaks and spinach (doctor’s orders) but had to also take iron supplements again. This is when I learned the best way to absorb more iron is to take/have it with vitamin C. This made a big difference.

    That time the ice cravings didn’t go away immediately. I satisfied my urges and got my ice fix with sugar free popsicles. I had them constantly, several at a time even during the coldest, snowiest winter we’d had in years. I would have them sometimes instead of meals and bought so many I had to go to different stores because the stores couldn’t restock them as fast as I was buying them. I ended up losing a lot of weight but eventually, the cravings were gone and so were the popsicles. Nowadays, I still enjoy an occasional slushie but the addiction to ice is definitely gone and if it ever returns, I’ll know what I need to do.

    By the way, my mom, who has had issues with anemia from childhood used to eat and crave the kind of starch people use to stiffen laundered clothing. It comes in blocks and powder form. She ate it so often we used to ask for it ourselves as children – thinking it was a snack. My point is I believe all this is a form of pica and it may run in families.

    August 13, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  12. Nanc

    Luv Luv Luv it.....Have issues with my stomach and cannot drink water like I used to. Ice is the best way to get my water requirements, feel refreshed and it seems to calm the upset stomach. Of course, crushed or finely chopped is better on the teeth. And think of the possibilities, not just plain water ice, but flavored water, tea, coffee, even soda. Yum

    August 13, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  13. lazurite

    The sound of someone chewing ice is horrible to me – it's like nails on a chalk board! Ugh! I absolutely cannot stand the sound of it. I

    August 13, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  14. Heather

    I chewed ice like crazy when I was pregnant – I'm sure I drove my husband crazy. The harder and faster I could crunch it, the more satisfying it felt. Maybe I was iron deficient. Now that I've had my baby, I don't have the desire to chew ice anymore.

    August 13, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  15. Tara

    I LOVE ICE!!!! What a great article – I totally could have written it! I also have certain favorite ice types – I'm like a connoisseur of ice!

    However, I do know I am very anemic and iron pills always make me feel sick. I wonder if I could get my doc to give me IV iron infusions – if anything at least I would have more energy!!!

    August 13, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  16. jdr24

    I've never heard of such a thing. Our bodies sure do some bizarre things. Sometimes I eat ice during the summer but it's not a craving in the least. I hate doing it, but it's a cheap, quick and easy way to cool down and I hate being hot.

    August 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  17. Hmmmmm

    I use to crave and chew ice all the time. When tooth fractures showed up on my dental x-rays, I did some research and found that most people who crave ice actually have an iron deficiency. I bought some iron tablets and started taking them, and my cravings went away. Too much iron can cause problems as well, so you might want to verify with a doctor before taking an iron supplement.

    August 13, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  18. NavyAirVet

    Ice chewing is an obnoxious habit and can get on others nerves with the crunching and trying to talk with ice in your mouth.

    August 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • lazurite

      Agreed. It's very obnoxious.

      August 13, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  19. Woody

    Dentists love ice chewers...because new crowns for broken teeth have huge profit margins.

    August 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  20. Karl

    A compulsion to chew ice can be a sign of iron deficiency.

    August 13, 2012 at 11:40 am |
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