Alina Simone, a singer, blogging at the New York Times:
A Russian acquaintance of mine who grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, recently told me that her father microwaved his orange juice. Her grandmother also used to heat her ice cream in a saucepan on the stove. She remembers once asking her grandmother why it was even called “ice” cream, when by all rights it should be called warm cream, or maybe hot cream. “Things have all kinds of crazy names,” her grandmother snapped back. “How should I know?”
If you were born in the Soviet Union and are of a certain age, ice is your enemy. As the daughter of émigrés from Ukraine, I was raised on room-temperature beverages and always associated ice with a raft of great American stuff other kids were allowed to have but I wasn’t: puppies, sheet cake, fun. My own grandmother would cringe from a glass of ice water as if it were a syringe of Ebola virus. To this day I have no idea what disease she associated with the consumption of cold liquids. Pneumonia? Athlete’s foot? Chlamydia?
Why do Russians hate ice? I called my dad and posed the question.
“Ice? I don’t hate ice,” he began. “It’s just that when these Americans hand you a can from the freezer, and it is already so cold that just touching it practically turns your hand into a claw, I don’t really see the need to add ice.”
Yeah, I thought to myself, you don’t hate ice. You just think the cold war was a literal attempt to freeze you. I quickly abandoned this line of inquiry and decided to take my investigation to the streets instead. What better place than Brighton Beach on one of the hottest weekends of the year?
To maximize my chances of getting any Russian over the age of 50 to talk to me, I put on a dress and more makeup than I thought I owned. But then I sort of handicapped myself by inviting my friend Amanda, who long ago shaved her eyebrows off and replaced them with black squiggles that look like Arabic writing. She tried hiding them behind sunglasses and a straw hat, but they peeped out insidiously nonetheless.
The air out on Brighton Beach Avenue hit us like a plume of dragon breath as we quickly made our way toward our first destination, a cafe. Although the heat outside was an Ecuadorean 101, it must have been at least 85 degrees inside as well. The wings of moths could have turned the air faster than the air-conditioner. Perfect, in other words, for our purposes.
Unlike the Russian restaurants on the boardwalk, the cafe was free of day-tripping tourists. A television mounted to the wall blared the Eurovision Song Contest, and talk at every table was reliably in Russian. We watched as a burly man in a red tank top poured a can of Coke into an ice-free glass. At a table near the front of the cafe, a dozen Russian men rose to make a toast and knocked back drinks that were assuredly not on the rocks. A pair of women next to us prodded their juices and we failed to hear a telltale clink. Meanwhile, I ordered us a selection of starch-based dishes, vareniki with potatoes, blintzes with cottage cheese, and — here was the test — two glasses of water. Moments later, they arrived. Sans ice.
“A mozhno eto s l’dom?” (Can we have it with ice?) I asked in Russian.
The waitress gave me a look of pity.
“We don’t have any ice,” she said.
“You can’t even buy it,” Amanda whispered, impressed. “It’s not for sale.”
Later, I asked one of the waitresses, why the no-ice policy.
“Over in Ukraine, they put ice in their drinks,” she explained. “But not in Russia.”
“Really? My family’s from Ukraine, and they don’t use ice.”
“Well then I guess we all don’t use ice.”
“Yes,” I persevered, “but why?”
“That’s just how it’s always been,” she shrugged.
This circular logic, though undoubtedly true, left me unsatisfied. So having filled our caloric quota for the week, we hit the streets again. A Chechen named Ahmed, whom we chatted up in an antiques store, insisted that Russians kept ice out of their drinks as a precaution. “Who knows where that ice came from? It’s probably dirty.” A Russian woman filling out a lottery ticket down the street concurred. “Unlike other nationalities, Russians are very clever. You can’t fool us,” she warned.
I had never considered this theory before, that ice was a riddle whose origin demanded to be solved, a potential form of drink pollution. It’s true that the tap water in many Russian cities, like St. Petersburg, can contain giardia and other contaminants. But New York City is known for having some of the cleanest drinking water in the world. I rejected this hypothesis. My gut told me that even if I made ice out of San Pellegrino before their very eyes, these Slavs would keep clinging to their tepid drinks.
At Oksamit Liquor, we found ourselves admiring a glass Kalashnikov full of vodka. I posed my ice question to the guy behind the counter, but a beefy man buying some whiskey interjected.
“Ice dilutes your drink,” he said, waving his bottle. “I put ice in it? It’s not as strong.”
“O.K.,” I said, “but then why don’t Russians use ice in their water?”
And on the shoals of this tricky question, our conversation stalled.
Back home, I decided my Siberian friends, with their heroic tolerance for cold, might help me gain some clarity on Russian ice aversion.
“We’re already surrounded by ice for most of the year,” my friend Vanya, who lives in Novosibirsk, replied via e-mail. Ice in his drink? “Thank you, but no.”
My friend Konst, a Siberian who recently relocated to Los Angeles, seconded this argument with the addition of an intriguing coda: “Or it could be that we have bad teeth.”
Moving west, a long soliloquy on the subject was provided by my cousin Kolya, from the also frigid city of St. Petersburg. He explained that although Soviet citizens did have the means to make ice (most Soviet-produced fridges came with “ugly aluminum devices included to prepare ice cubes,” he reminded me), Russian drinks weren’t customarily amenable to it. Most Westerners would agree, he argued, that beer, wine and vodka don’t go with ice. He also pointed out that in the years before, and immediately following, glasnost, Russia did not have a cocktail-mixing tradition. I was almost convinced, but then his cogent analysis veered abruptly toward conjecture: “Traditional Russian cold beverages, like kvass and mors,” he continued, “also do not require ice.”
Well, nothing really requires ice, does it? Ice — like most of the drinks it enlivens — is optional. And having drunk my share of lukewarm mors, a sweet berry-based concoction, on a hot summer day, I can say without reservation: a little ice wouldn’t hurt.
But in what might be construed as a sign of cultural global warming, my friend Sarah, a former New Yorker who has lived in Russia for over 20 years, relayed the following anecdote. Two 20-something couples, one American, one Russian, were sharing a meal at a Starlite Diner in Moscow when Sarah overheard the male of the Russian pair order a drink, emphasizing to the waitress that he wanted it “s l’dom.” It was a weighted gesture that seemed to signify a new kind of worldliness. Perhaps the new generation has learned that, love it or hate it, one thing is always true about ice — it’ll help you stay cool.