viernes, 8 de julio de 2016

American Exceptionalism on Ice

By Heidi Julavits ,

Ice did not strike me as American until I was in Germany. ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY

For the week of July 4th, we asked writers to describe a person, object, or experience that they think captures a distinctly American spirit.

Ice did not strike me as American until I was in Germany. I wanted to make margaritas for my German friends. I biked to our local Kaiser’s supermarket. Wo ist das Eis? I asked a clerk. Überall, he might have replied. Everywhere. The famed Berlin winter was coming; the collective anticipatory despair that prefigured its arrival already chilled the aisles of the Kaiser’s.

Then the clerk registered that I was American; he better understood my need. He held up a finger—Warten Sie hier. Wait here. Twenty minutes later, he reappeared. He surreptitiously handed me a small bag, filled with what looked like shavings from the ice-caked walls of a meat freezer. Our exchange reeked of geopolitical illicitness; we were mere kilometres from the Bridge of Spies, where, during the Cold War, prisoners were traded. More from our series on American people, history, and traditions.

When I returned to America, I recalled a lifetime of abundant, lawful ice. Ice was überall in America, and it did not bring despair. At general stores in rural areas: MILK BEER GAS ICE. I saw ice machines in every hotel and motel. Had I ever been to a hotel without ice, free ice, the plastic ice bucket a hotel-room fixture even in those rooms without cable TV?

American ice owes its rise to three men. In the eighteen-hundreds, Frederic Tudor cut the ice from New England ponds (including Walden Pond, which would seem to be a protected resource, the liquid inspiration of Thoreau—when it melted, could they hear his voice?) and packed it in ships and sent it to hot countries like Australia. Around the same time, a second man, John Gorrie, a Florida physician and inventor who studied tropical diseases and believed “bad air” in sickrooms could be made less infectious if cooled by ice hung from the ceiling, received a patent for an ice machine, in 1851. A century later, a third man, Kemmons Wilson, who founded Holiday Inn, broke hotel ranks when he installed ice machines and offered free, self-service ice to his guests. To pay for ice when it is naturally occurring in the hallway? And when you, like your forebears who cut it from a pond, procured it with your own two hands? Wilson put an end to this outrage.

The American need for ice speaks to our obsession with refrigeration as an antidote to death, and to our heightened terror of perilous bacteria and spoiling food. (I came from a family where to leave frozen meat to thaw on the kitchen counter was to court immediate post-meal extinction.) As a kid, I took summer road trips with grandparents, and ice machines proved key to our modern pioneer-style vacations, wagon-bumping from one national park to another. We stored drinks and food in a giant cooler that, each morning, needed to be filled with new ice that would gradually melt during the day, until we reached our final destination.

There is something Emersonian in the ritual of carrying a bucket to the humming, communal fountain and filling it with sharp, hard water. We may be spoiled in our expectation that every beverage be cold and every cocktail be perfect (just the right number of cubes), but we are self-reliantly so. Ice in an empty glass, rattled by a hand in the air, is an announcement from a person with power to a person with less power. Get me another. (The sound of ice, as a quick Google Books scan reveals, is a useful American literary trope, a telltale clue to the often unplumbed American psychological interior: “Howard sat thinking, inadvertently rattling the ice cubes in his glass.” “He raised a glass of water to his lips, ice cubes rattling as his hand shook.” “Her high heels, clacking across the marble foyer, made her think of ice cubes rattling in a glass.”)

While ice remains at a cultural high in America—so high, in fact, that it is a challenge to find an attractive refrigerator with “non-dispense styling,” or one that is unable to make ice—ice is on the wane in nature. Maybe in the future, Americans will pack our ships, like Tudor did, with ice from our many hotels and general stores and personal ice makers. Maybe, instead of sending our ice to the hotter countries, we’ll send it to the previously colder ones. I can see these ships, sailing toward the Arctic Circle, loaded down with rattling, telltale cubes, our country sacrificing its right to cold sodas and perfect cocktails in order to save the planet. When the ships dock, Americans will unload their melting cargo, each carrying a plastic ice bucket on which a lid can be placed, and the contents delivered, like cold ashes in an urn, to its final destination on the glacier. Heidi Julavits is the author of four novels, most recently “The Vanishers.” She is a founding editor of The Believer and is an associate professor at Columbia University

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