Ice Popular Culture
Another childhood memory gets exhumed and hippified with the new wave of gourmet ice pops.
By Leslie Bilderback 07/01/2011
Summer evokes the best kind of childhood memories --- running barefoot on the grass, not caring how you look in your bathing suit, soaking your friends with a water-weenie, the sound of the ice cream truck and the pavement’s sting as you stub your bare toe racing to catch it. Oddly, the ice cream truck in my neighborhood still plays that same song, and when I hear it my Pavlovian response is to rummage for spare change. But I quickly remember that I am an adult, and the driver probably wouldn’t stop for me. No matter --- the beauty of being an adult is that I can go to the store right now and buy as many Popsicles as I want. (Of course, I’ll have to do it in another neighborhood so no one recognizes me.)
Yes, the ice cream truck has started cruising the neighborhood again. In fact, all over the world frozen treat vendors are out in force. If you’re traveling abroad this summer, remember that eating a frozen pop is the international sign for “hot enough for ya?”
Frozen dessert is thought to have originated in Japan around 800 A.D. during the Heian period. Blocks of ice were carried down from the mountains, kept in ice caves and shaved into snow with a sword at the emperor’s whim.(In my head, this seminal snow cone was prepared with Kurosawian splendor by the seldom-discussed eighth samurai.) By the 19th century, flavored ice called kakigori was popular in the cities, and Japanese laborers brought the technology (ice and a knife) to Hawaii. There, especially at the north end of Oahu, the dessert has remained an island specialty, doused with multiple flavored syrups and stuffed with hidden ice cream or sweet red azuki beans. When you visit Hawaii, do not make the mistake of calling it “shaved ice.” It is shave ice. Trust me on this.
With the exception of Hawaiian shave ice, snow cones in the U.S. are sadly inferior to the rest of the world’s icy offerings. To begin with, our snow-cone ice is crushed, not shaved, and thus requires a spoon-straw to suck up the syrup that sinks to the bottom. And suck is definitely the operative word here, because mainland snow cones really do.
But the American Popsicle is another story. Its creation, as with all classic American treats, is crazily apocryphal. Just after the turn of the last century, an 11-year-old San Francisco boy named Frank Epperson was mixing some flavored soda water on the back porch, until he was interrupted (presumably around bedtime). In the morning he discovered the soda, cup and stirring stick had frozen solid overnight. Young Frank was haunted by this delicious event for the next 19 years (or he may have just been waiting to grow up) and in 1924, he patented the process.
From that ice pop sprang a plethora of chilly treats to soothe your summer swelter. Everyone has his or her favorites, mine being the Creamsicle (also known as the 50/50 Bar). This consists of vanilla ice cream surrounded by frozen orange ice. (It comes in other flavors, but if your Creamsicle isn’t orange then I don’t think we can be friends.)
I always felt that the Fudgsicle was a half-assed version of chocolate ice cream, served by moms who didn’t love their kids that much. (“You want some ice cream? Too bad! Have a Fudgsicle! Quit yer bawlin’.”)
Also for cheapskates was the Twin Pop, with two sticks that are “perfect for sharing.” (They are also perfect for hoarding at the back of the freezer and eating both sticks yourself when no one’s looking.) At age 7 the Push-Up Pop seemed to me like a technological marvel, carefully crafted for my atomic snack pleasure by NASA. Later, I realized it was just a cardboard tube. Also popular in the freezers of my youth were Otter Pops, which came liquefied in plastic pouches that, when frozen, formed perfect sticks of fluorescent sugar water. Best of all, they had names like Alexander the Grape, which I still think is hilarious. If I had boys, you know one of them would have been named Alexander the Grape Bilderback. (My girls are lucky I thought Little Orphan Orange was more sad than funny.)
I’m sorry to report that today frozen pops are rapidly becoming the new cupcake. On a recent trip to New York I happened by a gourmet pop store in Greenwich Village with dozens of colorful pops displayed in a case, like jewelry at Claire’s. These pops were not just frozen juice, mind you, but gelato and sorbet and yogurt, all in fanciful flavors like coconut-avocado and pineapple—sea salt. For an extra charge they will dip the pops in chocolate and roll them in nuts, granola or biscotti crumbs.(Only the snootiest cookie crumbs are good enough for our pops.)
Such trend-setting Sicle purveyors are popping up all over the country. Why do the hipsters keep insisting on glamorizing my childhood memories, then charging me $7.50? What’s next? Kindle-only Highlights subscriptions? Mr. Organic GMO-Free Potato Head? Hybrid wood-paneled station wagons, featuring on-board GPS with a programmable voice that can threaten to “turn this car around!”?
Of course, I am secretly mad as hell that I didn’t think of gourmet pops first. I do enjoy making frozen treats in the summer, especially in unique flavors. I have succumbed to high-tech pop makers over the years, their clean lines and efficient design luring me from catalogs promising summers filled with frozen wonderment. But invariably I can’t get the frozen pop out without resorting to running water, which makes a mess and melts half the thing away. In the end I always return to the good ol’ Dixie Cup. You can rip that sucker right off without wasting a drop of summer refreshment.
Now take that thing outside!
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.