Harrison Ford is thinking about the jungle. “If they saw an ice cube, they’d probably think it was a diamond… Ice is civilization,” he says as the messianic know-it-all in The Mosquito Coast. Diamonds are called ice in turn, but diamonds are forever. Ice melts and vanishes. Who could pay good money for something that goes so fast? In a hot season, ice is a luxury. Old kings would show off with it.
As the cocktail historian David Wondrich noted in his book Imbibe, Victorian bartenders were stingy with the ice. Nowadays we can really pile it on. Even by the late nineteenth century Mark Twain was able to write, “In Vicksburg and Natchez, in my time, ice was jewelry; none but the rich could wear it. But anybody and everybody can have it now.” Yet there is still no more luxurious sight than a silver ice bucket with a bottle of champagne chunked down inside, wisps of cold curling.
I went to an auction in Beverly Hills to buy one of Bob Hope’s many fancy ice buckets, a cunning red apple with an incomprehensible plaque affixed: “TO BOB HOPE WITH BOUNDLESS THANKS FOR MAKING LIGHTS ON THE BENEFIT IN THE BIG APPLE.” My wife Theresa was opposed to the apple-shaped ice bucket. Sending me off from Mississippi, she reemphasized that it looked “like something you’d see sitting in a dentist’s office.” I assessed it where it hunched in one of the glittering cabinets lining the auction house walls. It was a shabby apple. My wife was right again. In the catalog how it had shone and popped, a studio light glinting here and there on the red and polished plastic, bright among the yellowed caricatures and dull bronze statues that shared its page. Meanwhile, I wanted to bust out Dolores Hopes’s “Studio Del Campo Enameled Copper Dishes,” past which I had so impatiently flipped, and lick them like candy. Things that looked bad in the catalog looked good in real life, and vice versa.
Bob Hope had a pewter ice bucket. He had a Baccarat ice bucket. One with a silver-plated polar bear on top came with a Tiffany decanter. His Sevres crystal ice bucket was a beauty. It looked like real ice, hollowed out and fringed with gold. But it was small as a baby’s beach toy, and I wondered if I were really as coarse as I seemed, judging worth by size. Maybe it was sour grapes. I didn’t win any of them.
Many weeks later I attended a buffet at the home of the great food writer John T. Edge, who lives up the street from me in Oxford, and discovered that his ice bucket looks exactly like Bob Hope’s crystal ice bucket, the one I had coveted, just as preciously small, but holding a supply more than adequate for the cocktails of a large gathering. There is some scientific fact about volume I am not understanding.
It was in those same weeks that I happened to be enlightened by a made-for-TV movie about the poignant later relationship of the twice-divorced Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They are appearing in a Noel Coward play together, and Taylor, played by Helena Bonham Carter, has invited her ex to “run lines,” ha ha, at the swank pad she has borrowed from Rock Hudson. She removes the lid from a snug, coppery ice bucket and picks out a cube with her fingers—such a picture of privilege and decadence, daintiness and greed.
See, when Elizabeth Taylor (or Bob Hope) and I are talking about ice buckets, we are talking about two different things. The ice buckets of the stars seem smaller because my main acquaintance with them has been in motels (the ice buckets, not the stars), where they promise kingly convenience for the weary. Ice was amenity, granted by a huge machine, and the size of your bucket was the measure of generosity and value. In a 1963 interview, the president of the TraveLodge chain explained that the way to tell a hotel from a motel was whether “the guest is obligated to pay something more than the actual price of his room.” The scholarly authors of The Motel in America extrapolate: “If a guest had to pay for a garage or tip a bellboy for a bucket of ice, then he or she was not in a motel.”
At the very moment I was writing this, the critic James Wolcott tweeted rhapsodically of “carrying that little bucket to fill at the ice machine” as “one of life’s unsung pleasures.” In 140 characters or less he captured the democratic-aristocratic dual nature of the ice bucket.
In an email to me, David Wondrich distinguished nicely between the older version, “mostly for icing bottles of wine or punch,” and “the kind with a false bottom to drain the ice and tongs and a cover.” He said that people “didn’t begin mixing cocktails at home until the 1890s, and it didn’t really catch on until the 1910s, so there would have been no market or need” for the second kind before then. By 1920, you start seeing ads for “the colored glass ones with the chrome trim.”
The more basic kind has been around for ages, as I learned from Elizabeth David’s “social history of ice” Harvest of the Cold Seasons, which contains a mid-sixteenth-century illustration of a carafe being “agitated in a pail filled with snow.” By agitation, the author means grabbing it by its long neck and rotating the bottle in its frozen nest, a trick practiced with beer in Oxford, Mississippi, until just recently, when our antiquated blue laws against the sale of cold beer were lifted.