The other night my wife and I met with two real estate agents in our home. After we had shown them around the house for an hour, listening to them yammer endlessly about how we should stage our home for sale, we sat down at the kitchen table to talk about pricing, financing and more. My wife offered them a glass of water, and brought them both large tumblers full of tap water, no ice. Neither of the agents touched the water.
It’s not completely her fault. My wife was born in Hungary, and only came to the U.S. as an adult, and she has not adjusted to the American partiality for ice water. I will say she has had plenty of time and advice. Over the years I have tried mightily to teach her about ice water. I have even detailed the ‘recipe’ for this peculiarly Yankee beverage a number of times: take a large glass; fill it as full as possible with ice cubes; add as much water as you can. Replenish as needed with more ice.
I recall a scene in a Masterpiece Theater presentation back in the eighties, Paradise Postponed it was called, and one of the English characters had just visited the States. How was it? she was asked. ‘Horrid,’ she replied (or something of that sort), ‘everyone drinking iced water. It makes one’s teeth hurt to think about.’ I understand that there is curiosity ranging from the bemused to the censorious, even a sort of revulsion in other nations about heavily iced drinks, especially water. When I visit my wife’s family in Hungary, yea though it is August and the sun doth beat down on my back, ice is hard to come by. They keep one little ice cube tray in their freezer, it holds like a half-dozen cubes, and from this they stingily chisel out one or two and drop them in my glass; it’s as if I had asked for dead frogs in my drink, and though they are willing to oblige a guest, they’re not going to put in too many.
My favorite drink in all the world is ice water. I live in St. Louis County, here where summer temperatures run above 90 degrees most of the time, and the humidity can sap all your energy in an hour or two. It’s like this in much of the United States, and that may explain why it is that we so love our iced beverages. I think people in many climates have food or beverage preferences that come about due to climatic or seasonal conditions: and I’m not talking about people in Japan eating fish, or Eskimos surviving on raw narwhal.
The great food writer John Thorne, in his book Pot on the Fire, wrote about several foodstuffs that are both simple and way more complex than we think. He had a long chapter on steamed rice. He had a chapter on toast. Toast, he notes, is popular beyond reason in England. This he theorizes is because of the chill and dampness of the island nation, which puts a premium on something warm, dry and comforting like toast. Pair it with a nice hot cup of tea and you have refuge from any storm the cold North Atlantic can throw at you.
Many people wonder that Arabs, living in the desert, are avid coffee drinkers. A hot beverage, there where it is already so hot? This becomes a complex sociological, religious, biological question. Of course they are Muslims, and cannot drink liquor, so coffee (and often, tea) fills the role of ice-breaker and social glue. Men sit around in restaurants and coffee houses arguing about the day’s news and drinking endless cups of dark, thick coffee. There are confusing and contradictory theories about what coffee does to one’s body in a hot environment: some say it only heats you up, but many people insist that by accelerating the body’s core temperature, perspiration–and thus cooling–is increased. A very likely answer to this conundrum may come in the observation that coffee, made from boiling water, was a long time sanitary alternative to unclean drinking water.
This is surely why Chinese and other Asians drank tea to the exclusion of almost any other beverage for so long. When the Transcontinental Railroad was being built, Irish and other workers of European origin suffered regularly from dysentery and cholera, while their supervisors observed that their Chinese counterparts did not. Though they were years from the microbiological breakthroughs that would help them understand it, the answer lay in the fact that the Chinese workers drank only weak tea throughout the day.
Since the American Revolution, tea has never been as popular in America as in many other nations, except of course in the South, where it is drunk almost exclusively iced–and very, very sweet. Naturally it would be the South, where temperatures and humidity can be nearly unbearable for much of the year. The delicious and refreshing aspect of iced tea is finally being acknowledged in the ‘sweet tea’ trend which has recently swept American fast food chains (not to mention its profitability, since tea, as a wholesale commodity, costs only a fraction of what the major soft drink brands cost.)
But the most interesting thing in these foods or beverages we come to value because of our environment is that we still like them even when the specific environmental conditions do not prevail. I drink many tall, frosty glasses of ice water in January and February. The same for iced tea, which I drink all year round. I’m sure that it doesn’t have to be a December morning for a Brit to enjoy a nicely toasted crumpet and a cup of tea. Once a tradition is set, it is to our taste, and we miss it when we don’t get it.