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As summer heats up, the ice fans cometh

It's clear that frozen water has a special place on the planet, so chill out and enjoy it -- while you still can.

July 28, 2006|Linton Weeks | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Over the years, we have learned to crush, shave, dry, cube and flavor it.

But the surest thing about ice is -- like life, puppy love and a healthy stock portfolio -- it doesn't last.

Kris Grice understands the impermanence of ice. He runs Ice Kristals, an ice-sculpting business in two warehouse rooms in Manassas, Va., 30 miles southwest of here. Grice provides all kinds of carved objets d'ice -- decorative sculptures, punch bowls, seafood platters, caviar stations, even full-size bars -- to weddings, anniversaries and corporate events. Ice, he says, "is there to enhance the overall everything."

Grice and his crew carve from 300-pound blocks that are 40 inches high. A Capitol dome will set you back $375. A 6-foot ice bar at least $1,500.

People are always asking why they should pay for something that will melt in a few hours, and he points out that the food, the libations and the music will also be gone just as swiftly. On the other hand, he says, an ice sculpture -- while it exists -- can provide a centerpiece for a gathering.

"When it begins to melt," he says, "that's when people really start paying attention."

We enjoy watching elegance decline.

The prefab snow cones being sold for $2 apiece in the shade of an awning and some trees downtown near the Natural History Museum seem to last all day. The vendor's name tag reads: Ngoc Bich T Phung.

The tasteless thing in the paper cone is one of her most popular novelties on scorching days. She points to passing tourists. "They need the ice."

We all need the ice.

Humans first used ice as a way to chill out, says Bernard Nagengast, co-author of the 1994 book "Heat & Cold: Mastering the Great Indoors." Several thousand years ago people hacked chunks of ice from high altitudes and stored them in caves, he says, probably as a crude form of air conditioning. Ancient Romans collected snow from nearby Mount Albanus and kept it in pits covered with straw and tree prunings. The ice was used to chill wine or for cooling therapeutic baths. "The Romans found that cold water was particularly useful for reviving those who had drunk too much wine the night before," Nagengast says.

Eventually, people all over the world discovered that ice could be used to prolong the freshness of food, and in this country, people began floating it in drinks such as tea and coffee. "That's a peculiarly American habit," he says.

Ice entrepreneurs figured out how to send block ice to insulated storage facilities in warmer climes. And deliver it, using tongs and other rudimentary devices, to iceboxes in homes and businesses. In the late 19th century, engineers discovered how to create the cooling effect of ice -- to keep food edible and people comfortable -- through refrigeration.

"The block-ice business has changed character since World War II," Nagengast says. "We don't any longer use it for household refrigerators. We use block ice for short-term perishable items." Ice is used on boats, he says, and in restaurants for preserving food.

Ice has value. Legendary lawman and newspaperman Bat Masterson, who died in 1921, is reported to have said that in the end, we all wind up with the same amount of ice -- the rich get it in the summer and the poor in the winter.

To Shakespeare, it was chaste. To Jose Arcadio Buendia in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude," it was magical. The treasure was first introduced to Buendia in a pirate's chest. He saw "an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars....

"It's the largest diamond in the world."

"No," the gypsy said, "it's ice."

Diamonds are forever; ice is a fleeting thing.

Even the ice fields of Greenland that fascinate Mark Fahnestock, a glaciologist at the University of New Hampshire, will not stand. The glaciers are slip-sliding into the sea at a rapid rate.

"We look at these ice sheets as permanent things," Fahnestock says. But they are not. He points out that 12,000 or so years ago, there were a lot more ice sheets dotting the planet. Where are they now?

They are gone where all ice sculptures and uneaten snow cones go. Melted away by the hazards of heat and time.

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