Thursday, December 12, 2013


All right this is not a novel observation I'm about to make.

Let's be honest - is it ever? Am I ever out here on the Internet dropping the Bomb of Truth such that people stagger back from their monitors and run out onto the street, their lives completely changed? No. The only bombs around here are usually of the F- variety.

So, hi! Welcome to the 12th of December! We're right in the middle of the 24 days of Advil and maybe I should recap some of our progress before getting into the thing I feel like complaining about today.

Well that is kind of a lot. Maybe I will have that Bloody Mary while I'm making dinner. You, however - read on!

Ok so here's a bomb - not the bomb, but a little promise bomb to you - after yesterday's post, I am going to drop a buck into my son's Habitat for Humanity coin box every time I use the word "also." That is one duuuumb habit I picked up somewhere. Sorry.

But the observation, yes. It's been bothering me lately that certain manufactured items are evolving backwards. They are getting worse. As I said, this is far from news. People bitch about it all the time. And it's common knowledge - policy, even! - in some industries. One of my grown-up nieces is an engineer at a major appliance manufacturing company. She will tell you flat-out, "Keep your old dishwasher as long as you can."

A still from City Neighbors Charter School Film Club's
Dead End in Norvelt, showing the red phone in use.
I have a similar beef with my telephone. Which we don't call a telephone anymore.

My parents let me have my own phone extension in my room when I turned 17, a little rite of passage thing. It was a birthday gift, I'm pretty sure, and it wasn't new even then. That phone is a dinosaur. It's a cast-aluminum desk phone with a dial, and it weighs about 20 pounds. Rolling that dial around required real finger strength - good thing we only had to dial 7 numbers back then (THAT'S RIGHT CHILDREN).

And despite painting it red, retro-fitting it with a new jack, and putting an MTV sticker on it (in 1982, MTV was very cutting-edge), it was still not what I wanted.

I wanted a Trimline Princess phone with buttons. I eventually bought one myself, a pink one - dusty pink, like the inside of a dog's mouth pink, and it only got worse, you know how some plastics as they age the color shifts? It paradoxically managed to both fade and turn darker at the same time, eventually looking more like the inside of a dog's intestine. Whereas my red phone is still red.

And eventually the Trimline one broke or whatever. The red phone moved with me to Brooklyn in 1994. We put it next to the bed because it was so heavy, it didn't go flying across the room if you were half-asleep and had to make a grab for it. Also because it would make a great weapon in the case of home invasion. Home invasion very rarely happens but you know, if it does, no home invader expects to be attacked with a telephone.

And then when we moved to our house here, our first house-house, we got cordless phones because there's only one jack in this house. Maybe there's two. So you take the base unit and plug it into the one jack and then put the charger units... you know, wherever. Who cares. Well those fail with total frequency - I just recently discovered that those handsets have batteries in them that can quit. I don't know. I didn't open them up. I didn't read the manual. We never use them anyway.

Which brings us to the whole cell phone catastrophe of engineering.

A 2 by 4" quarter-inch slab is what we use for a phone now? That's ridiculous. They're slippery. Fragile. I've had like seven of them since I first got a mobile in 2000. They require accessories like earbuds and headsets to make them even remotely suitable for talking into.

I am not denying that they do other things very well - I'm recording into mine right now - but look at this picture: which one of these objects looks like an auditory communication device? AND - if we hadn't trimmed off the cord for some reason I don't remember? That red phone would STILL WORK. I tell you, if I were a phone engineer right now, I'd be ashamed of myself.

And even within the cellphone lifetime, they have gotten worse. This was my first cell phone. It fits in the hand, it has a little mouthpiece that flips out, I could find it in my purse. It has a photobooth sticker of me and Bob with a brand-new baby who is now 12 years old (and has his own phone god damn it). And then there were clamshell phones, which made a modicum of sense. All the sensitive parts were shielded when the thing was closed. But these stupid flat items, well I'm sorry.

By the way, I can hear you - you are saying "HEY - WHY AREN'T WE DRINKING YET?" and hold your horses, we are coming around real soon.

It's like ice.

Most people have icemakers in their refrigerator freezers now. Not everybody - them consarned things break down a lot so plenty of people still use ice cube trays. AND THEY'RE THE LUCKY ONES.

A Gizmodo writer LOVES this thing, calling it "a graceful mix
I laughed, oh I laughed. Then I stopped.
Used to be, everybody filled ice cube trays. If you're as old as I am or had a grandmother who never threw anything out, you remember those steel ice cube trays with the lever. Hated those things. The cold steel stuck to your skin and it took the strength of Hercules to crack the ice, which then burst out of the tray and skittered across the floor.

But this tray made good ice for drinks. Even the plastic trays make ice that is larger and more rectilinear than what you'll get out of your icemaker now.

Icemakers make terrible ice. It's rounded on one side, so when it slides up in the glass that rounded side nestles against the curved wall of the glass and you have an ice dam between you and your drink. Icemaker ice also tends to nestle together and refreeze into a solid block. And icemaker ice is NOT CUBIC - it's narrower at the ends, making it more melty.

Parsing this makes me sound like a maniac, doesn't it. But it is a factor, dammit!

The very worst thing is going to a restaurant with a good reputation - say a newer restaurant with a whole farm-to-table bla bla artisan hinkydink - and getting kind of excited about the cocktail menu, which will be full of sage-infused this and rhubarb shrub and heirloom whatever, and picking the house Negroni, which is made with smoked vermouth and gin aged in whiskey barrels, and asking for it on the rocks because you're going to have dinner and I for one don't need to be completely in the bag when the trout comes out - and it shows up poured over a metal scoopful of the kind of ice you find in a Coke at McDonalds.

You know the stuff.

This stuff is also known as "cheater ice," because it packs into a drink cup leaving as little room as possible for the soda. When stuff like this hits a room-temperature cocktail, it just gives up the ghost and turns to water. It's not so bad when it's added to a drink that's already been chilled, but still it will dilute the drink fairly quickly because it has a lot of surface area and carries with it more already-melted water. Also, it slides around in the drink and floats up into your mouth and it's just yuck. I DON'T LIKE IT.

This is the Angel's Share.
The first time we went to the Japanese speakeasy on Stuyvesant Street known as Angel's Share, I was startled and intrigued to see the bartender sort through an ice bin with a pair of tongs looking for the right PIECE of ice for my gin and tonic. (That was a long time ago if I ordered a G&T.)

One big rock of ice. He might have sculpted it a little with an ice pick to make it fit better in the glass, even. At the time, I thought it was one of those Japanese things that we Westerners kind of admire but also kind of think is frighteningly submissive and/or OCD.

But if you think I'm the only one who noticed, well, you've never been to New York. If it can be fancied-up, it will be fancied-up - that's the First Rule of Manhattan. New York Magazine ran a slideshow of fancy ice in 2008. God the rest of us are never going to catch up! (That was fake cultural hysteria BTW.)

In fact, the ice thing is getting seriously out of hand. It's one thing to plump for a bar ice machine that makes perfect 1 1/4" by 1 1/4" cubes, or to find specially-shaped silicone, copper or aluminum trays that make rods for tall drinks or perfect spheres for Scotch (a sphere is the shape with the least surface area and thus melts the slowest). I'd say it's another thing entirely to hand-carve every piece of ice that goes in a drink using a Japanese ice saw or a chainsaw lubricated with vegetable oil.

Ok, this is some badass icemaking, I have to admit.

And it appears I am going to need one of these.

Plus a set of these, a Japanese artist's statement on global warming.

There are bars that describe their "ice program" on the menu. I always thought an ice program was what Kristi Yamaguchi did at the Olympics. Get away from me with your ice program. Go smoke some bitters, why don't you. Wax your ironic mustache. The happy medium looks more like this:

That's ice from a specialized bar ice machine and the same kind of ice in my drink (rye with a little Cynar in it) at Cunningham's in Towson MD.

But what does all this mean for those of us who drink at home? Besides molding individual Death Star ice balls and great white sharks (oh I bought a great white shark ice mold - it tipped over in the freezer and all the water ran out), what do we do about putting ice in our drink that doesn't dilute it too fast and then try to sneak into our mouths?

Well, the good news is that you could reclaim some space in your freezer by taking out the ice bin and turning off the icemaker. Word has it that the water line that feeds the icemaker is the weakest point in your fridge's engineering anyway, so maybe using it less will keep the repairman at bay.

Or for $300, you could get 50 of these FedExed to your door.
I shit you not.
But yeah, if you want to go this route, you'll be filling ice cube trays.

So let's see, what does Bed Bath & Behave have in the way of ice cube trays? Cutesy ones, those are probably to be avoided. Silicone trays that make 2" cubes, that's probably your best bet, although you kind of have to punch each cube out of individually. There are sliding covers and switches - engineering innovations that seem...not strictly necessary.

This is the phone thing all over again, isn't it? Where is the semi-rigid plastic ice cube tray that you flex and the cubes pop out? What was wrong with it and why can't I find one?

CONCLUSION: How to make The Coldest Drink in Coldtown

Prepare your ice. Put your freezer on its warmest setting and find some kind of tray or mold that makes big ice. Fill the tray or mold with hot water. It'll take a day or two for that ice to freeze, but if it freezes slowly, it'll be extra clear and less likely to crack. Wrap up everything else in the freezer so that odors don't get into your precious ice.

Pre-chill your ingredients in the freezer. Put the shaker and the glassware in there too.

Pisco Punch
1 1/2 oz Pisco
1 oz Lime
1 oz Pineapple juice
1/2 oz Pomegranate juice
dash Chuncho bitters (Angostura in a pinch)
Shake over ice, strain into chilled glass.

So tomorrow's F YOU FRIDAY and hmmm... it might be time for the speakeasies. As in "F you, you are not cool enough to get in here." Last chance - you know about a hidden bar, a place without a sign out front or a website, you let me know!

I don't believe it, but this post is getting a bibliography. There is some serious nerdism going on out there in the area of ice.

"Cocktail Science: 5 Myths About Ice, Debunked" by Kevin Liu on
"The Truth About the Fancy Ice in Your Drink" by Elizabeth Gunnison for Esquire.
"The Ice Program" by Nicola on
"Rocking Out" by Paul Clarke for Imbibe magazine.
"The Ice Is Right: Is Artisan Ice the Final Frontier for Craft Cocktails?" by Jessica Sidman for the Washington City Paper.