Last week Alina Simone wrote an amusing piece on the New York Times Opinionator blog about why Russians don’t put ice in their drinks. Any American who has traveled in Europe has probably wondered the same thing in many of those countries, where you might be served a few cubes of ice floating in your soda but rarely the glassful we’ve come to expect here. A better question might be, why do Americans love ice so much?
The answers Simone heard from older family members and from strangers in New York’s Russian immigrant–dominated Brighton Beach were all over the place: A Chechen antiques dealer said, “Who knows where that ice came from? It’s probably dirty.” A bar patron posited that ice dilutes a drink, but had no answer for why, then, it shouldn’t be used in water. A Siberian friend pointed out that they are already surrounded by ice for most of the year, and another said maybe it was because they have bad teeth that were sensitive to the cold.
One explanation I’ve heard elsewhere, and which may hold some truth, is that Europeans see ice as taking up valuable real estate in the glass, so that they would feel cheated if they got too much ice and too little beverage. This theory has two problems: It doesn’t explain, again, why water shouldn’t be served with ice, and it doesn’t take into account the fact that one is often served a whole can or bottle of soda, which could then be used to refill the glass. My guess on the first issue is that drinking water with a meal is (or at least was) less common in Europe than here—a Parisian waiter once sarcastically presented my requested water as “Champagne”—and since no one had become accustomed to ice in drinks the preference carried over to water.
The answer that Simone heard that was closest to the truth, I suspect, came from a waitress in a Russian restaurant: “That’s just how it’s always been.” With a question that could never be answered definitively, that seems as good a response as any.
As for the reverse question—why Americans use so much ice in their drinks—my theory is that it has to do with our “more is more” mentality. Because somewhere along the line free drink refills became the norm, giving customers lots of ice was actually seen as adding rather than subtracting value. It’s like the giant slab of cream cheese many delis slap on your bagel, when a light schmear would do nicely. Personally, I think they sometimes go overboard with the ice; I like my drink chilled, but not glacial.
At the other extreme, in some countries—Turkey, for instance—hot beverages, like tea, are preferred in warm weather. The theory is that they cause you to sweat, which cools you down, while your body will have to work harder to warm a cold drink to your internal temperature, thereby making you even hotter. But, as Dean Edell points out, this theory doesn’t hold water: Neither a hot nor a cold drink in anything but an enormous amount can raise or lower overall body temperature. It’s “like throwing an ice cube into a tub of hot water,” he says. Any difference felt is an illusion.