Ice Water Cometh: a truly inconsequential meditation on the history of ice water in hospitality

I've often wondered at the ubiquity of ice cold water in hospitality.  Certainly there are times when an ice cold beverage is the longed-for refreshment - after a sweaty day (or night) of hot labor or during those 2 months of brutally humid heat in the dead of a NYC summer - but mostly, ice water just makes my hands cold, my fillings hurt and my head ache. Surely many others have noticed the incongruity of being served a glass of ice water by a well-meaning server in the middle of winter.  The rule of thumb seemingly should be: "if you have to heat the room, don't ice the water."

Besides the discomfort of relative temperature extremes, there appears to be a health reason to avoid iced water as well.  Something about a shock to your system and a digestive inhibitor.

Pondering these deep questions while being served iced water in the middle of winter on a heated bus, I began to formulate a theory.  Like the great philosopher-scientists of old (Plato, Aristotle, Empedocles) who disdained experimental observation as coarse and unseemly in contrast to pure theoretical poppycock (aether, anyone?), I am content to propound an explanation based on zero historical fact or responsible research.  Even so, I've a hunch I'm right.

My theory is that somewhere in recent cultural memory, ice water symbolized luxury.  Today, ice water is virtually worthless but not long ago, before the advent of refrigeration, if I offered you ice water, what I was really saying was that I had laboriously harvested a big block of river ice in the winter and carefully kept it insulated in my cellar with straw and blankets so that, 6 months later, I could chip off a piece and put it in your drink.  Or, more precisely, I was saying I could afford to hire someone to do that.


In a warm climate, as Paul Theroux's Allie Fox tragically demonstrates in The Mosquito Coast (forget the movie, read the book), ice is nothing short of a miracle.  A truth I discovered empirically, if imperfectly, at the age of 8 when I had the foresight to secretly stash a winter snowball in the freezer to be used in the heat of summer as the neighborhood's only operational winter weapon against my unsuspecting sister, Star.  A most cunning and devious plan which I either did or did not get from Calvin & Hobbes which began syndication around the same time.  To this day, I don't know whether it was the months of building anticipation and excitement that over-adrenalized my arm or the strangely tender feelings I had developed for this hunk of anachronistic snow that perverted my aim but, either way, I missed.  As I looked on, dumbfounded, my sister calmly and carefully scooped up the scattered snowy remains quickly melting on the hot asphalt and returned fire.  She did not miss.  Needless to say, I was disappointed.


With this kind of labor in mind, a restaurant of yesteryear serving iced water in the summertime must've seemed impossibly lavish - an oasis in the desert.  Thus the unconscious shorthand employed by your waiter every time your glass is filled with clinking, freezing ice cubes.

But times change and, like many antiquated notions and ideas (the electoral college, landlines, television commercials), ice ain't what it used to be.  Perhaps, as we all tighten our belts in this age of the "new normal", it's time we leave ice on the side and slake our thirst with lukewarm tap from now on?