The Story of American Ice Begins with an Outrageous Marketing Plan
Amy Brady and Jeff Vandermeer in Conversation About the History and Future of Ice
Amy Brady, the executive director of Orion Magazine, is the author of the great new book Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks, A Cool History of a Hot Commodity. Ice chronicles the two-hundred-year year history of ice in the United States, starting in the early nineteenth-century ice trade, and looks at how the arrival of ice in places where it doesn’t form naturally, at least not very often, changed American’s relationships with food and drink, with sports, with medicine, and how it sparked an obsession with cold and how eventually that obsession with cold gave rise to electric refrigeration.
Brady is also a contributing editor for Scientific American and co-editor of The World as We Knew It, an anthology of “dispatches” from a changing climate. She’s made numerous appearances on the BBC, NPR, and PBS. Recently, Brady came to my hometown of Tallahassee for an environmental panel sponsored by my nonprofit, the Sunshine State Biodiversity Group, at Word of South.
Intrigued by her answers about Ice on a panel discussion that included the novelist Alexandra Kleeman, I caught up with Brady later to ask more questions about the book. The resulting interview includes the repurposed spark of some of her panel answers as well.
Jeff VanderMeer: Ice is ubiquitous and we take it so for granted so we may not even understand its precious value. Can you talk a little bit about the reality of that?
Amy Brady: Throughout the whole history of ice, we see these inflection points where the damage that human activity is doing to the planet also affects our water supply. And then in turn, the ice that’s coming from that water supply has a damaging effect on our bodies.
Even with refrigeration, I learned the startling fact that combined electric refrigeration and air conditioning actually spew ten percent of all global emissions, which was pretty startling. And so the book [grapples] with this question of how we can live on an earth where we have ice coming out of our automatic ice makers and there’s ice on our global poles. Answer to be determined.
JV:You write that Thoreau witnessed early ice harvesting from a local lake and unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson, who hated the practice, Thoreau leaned into it, “wondering how his body might taste” to people in far-flung places. Does ice capture taste in that specific a way? And do you think Thoreau added much to the quality of the ice?
AB: Never let anyone tell you Thoreau wasn’t funny! Well, as anyone who’s ever kept ice too long in their freezer has noticed, ice can get “skunky.” It starts to take on the smells of the things you keep inside your freezer. (I cut, perhaps mercifully, from my book a scene of me cleaning my freezer one day, only to realize that the cubes in my ice-maker smelled like three-month old chicken.)Ice has played a role in so many different cultures throughout history. But the American story of ice is unique because it starts not just with necessity but with an outrageous marketing plan.
That said, the water from Walden, where Thoreau bathed, probably didn’t taste like him, but it would have tasted like “lake”—an unavoidable consequence of natural ice harvesting. Still, I like to think that whoever dropped frozen Walden cubes in their glass of lemonade felt a strange and sudden impulse to go to the woods to “live deliberately.”
JV: What’s more American than Thoreau and bad smells? Don’t answer that. But do answer this: What distinguishes the American story of “ice” from that of other countries or (pre-U. S.) time periods?
AB: Ice has played a role in so many different cultures throughout history. But the American story of ice is unique because it starts not just with necessity (though that certainly played a role) but with an outrageous marketing plan! In the early nineteenth century, a wealthy Bostonian named Frederic Tudor landed on the idea to sell ice from his Massachusetts lake to warm climates around the world (including the American southern states and territories), where ice rarely—if ever—formed naturally.
But to convince people in those climates to buy ice—people who may have never even seen ice before—he had to demonstrate how to use the stuff to make the most delicious things, like icy cocktails and ice cream. He branded ice as a luxury item (though no one would have used the word “brand” in his day), leading to a long history of Americans thinking of ice as an aspirational commodity, something to strive to own.
By the 1950s, owning an electric refrigerator that could hold a tray of ice was on par with owning a TV set or a car. It was a sign that one had arrived at the American middle class.
JV: What rituals or things do Americans do with ice that strike you as vestiges of the memory of how ice used to be something you found a source of, made into blocks, and shipped off for sale?
AB: With the rise of the luxury ice movement in craft cocktail bars across the country, we have in some ways come full circle! Bartenders who demand high-quality ice are now getting it shipped to their establishments as blocks, which they cut with ice tools into pieces that are appropriately sized to fill cocktail glasses. This shipped ice is much clearer than that which is made by ice machines, because impurities have been pushed out of it via a process called directional freezing (a process that mimics how ice freezes naturally in lakes and rivers). Just as in Frederic Tudor’s time, Americans now are clamoring for luxury ice!
JV: Within this focus on a particular country, the book accomplishes the feat of including you as the author, on this journey of exploring ice, but also more formal passages. Did the book always juxtapose these impulses and was it easy to find the right balance?
AB: I went back and looked at my book proposal to answer this question and was surprised to see that, yeah, those impulses were always there! I suppose my thinking from the beginning was that I wanted to interject myself into the story, just a bit, because the story began with me asking a question into the ether: why are Americans so obsessed with ice?Looking at the world from the perspective of landscape can reveal just as much about humanity as it can the land.
I thought that if people could “see” me trying to find an answer to that question they might get curious about it, too. It wasn’t always an easy balance to strike–in an early draft I went on way too long about my first experience curling (no one needs that picture in their mind)—but I like to think I finally got it right.
The hard part about environmental history is that it’s based on real life and real life doesn’t have a plot structure, at least not one that I would want to read. And so just having to find the boundaries of your narrative and shape it into a story that is consumable is I think one of the biggest challenges. And, hopefully, Ice pulled it off.
JV: Orion Magazine has tackled environmental history quite a bit, with a recent partial emphasis on decentering the human—you’ve given the example of writing from the perspective of a stream. To what extent does the point of view of Ice make it into your book? The point of view of landscape?
AB: At one point, I think it’s in chapter three, I intentionally slow down the story to look at the landscape surrounding factories and meat-packing plants of late nineteenth-century America, because those places were almost always situated next to rivers and lakes—the very bodies of water we harvested ice from.
I want readers to see the detritus leaking from those places into our drinking water, the bits of fabric and dye floating down rivers, turning the water green. I want them to see the hundreds of dead fish lying about the banks. I want them to see these things because such conditions are a part of not just natural history, but human history.
Humans caused those changes in the landscape, and those changes, in turn, had a great effect on us. A pretty negative effect, in fact. Looking at the world from the perspective of landscape can reveal just as much about humanity as it can the land.
JV: Personal history can also play a large role in writing about landscape or a subject like ice, of course. Would you care to share anything influential in that space?
AB: Well, I don’t want to be too disparaging of my Kansas school system, but I’ll say this. I was given to read a lot of overarching narratives that read like history with a capital H. And then as I got older and met more people and read more things, I realized there’s no such thing as a single narrative when it comes to history.American life without ice would in some ways cease to look like “American” life.
And the interesting thing about writing a micro history or an object history like Ice, a story that follows one substance through time, is that that cube of ice becomes almost like a prism through which you start to see other aspects of people in cultures and environmental landscapes that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
I now live in Connecticut, but I lived in New York City for a little over a decade. I’m pretty familiar with the Hudson, but I got to see the Hudson in a much different way once I learned that people were drinking glasses of tea that had chunks of frozen Hudson in it. And I mean, yes, it’s disgusting, especially during the peak of the industrial revolution. But it completely changed how I see history and how I see landscapes, as well as different types of people and cultures.
JV: What was your moment you realized that you truly write about environment and not just the yes environment is everything around you?
AB: I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t writing about the environment, and I don’t say that like I have some moral high ground. It’s more of just, I’m from Kansas. I come from a long line of farmers, and in the ’90s we lost our family farm to Monsanto. And so, I’ve always either been thinking about the environment or marching about it that kind of thing.
So it’s always just kind of been front of mind. When you look at history or contemporary life through an environmental lens, I think it becomes clear that environmental stories are just a part of how we live. All stories are environmental stories.
JV: What would happen if ice disappeared tomorrow? Like, the capacity to make or access ice easily?
AB: War! Famine! Brother vs. brother fighting in knife pits for food! Seriously, though, Americans would not be happy. Thanks to revolutions in ice-on-demand technology, we use ice in so many aspects of our lives: we put it in our drinks, we use it to nurse swollen limbs and calm fevers, we fill coolers with it to take on camping trips, we skate on it on indoor rinks in the middle of summer.
We would have to give up so many tiny luxuries that have become so commonplace we almost don’t think of them as luxuries anymore, but just as the “way life is.” American life without ice would in some ways cease to look like “American” life. (As scary as this scenario sounds, I would love to read a novel about it….)
*Repurposed panel questions used by permission of the panel moderator C. D. Davidson-Hiers.
Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—A Cool History of a Hot Commodity by Amy Brady is available via Putnam.