Memorial Day came like nothing was wrong. The sun was beaming in such a way that day that when I finished reporting, I felt an urge that I’d had umpteen times before: Get up out of the heat and get some water ice.
I made way to my favorite spot Uptown — Tranzilli’s. When I arrived at its intersection in Germantown, I saw the staggered, socially distanced line of folks waiting. I needed at least a quart, then two, then three. If I wasn’t concerned about freezer space, I might have gone for the gallon. But as I dug into my mango, kiwi strawberry, watermelon, blueberry, and margarita “wudder ice” at home, I knew I’d be back.
This is a food that I’m willing to leave my house for, and get in person. Part of it could be impulse — a lot of it is probably my inner jawn speaking — but when I sit with a bowl of water ice, I feel like it’s a calm Sunday when I’d ask my grandfather about Tranzilli’s after church. It makes me want to pull up to a cookout and find mango Rita’s conveniently not too far from a fifth of E&J Peach. The memories of summer — before the pandemic changed us all — flood back.
Having a reaction like this, where food conjures a certain nostalgia, is common. Our memories are connected, explains Shira Gabriel, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. And multiple memories from a single experience can be “cataloged in our brains as one thing.” This is why, she said, retracing one’s steps can help recover what’s lost, why the smell of a perfume can remind you of a person, and why comfort foods can shift one’s mood and remind us of people we love.
“We’re all living through a super uncertain and scary and very different time when we are isolated and limited from the connections that we really like and need,” Gabriel said. “And so those foods can give us not only just the enjoyment of eating something delicious, but they can also activate for us those thoughts and memories and emotions that are essential for our well-being.”
She continued, “The emotional attachment to foods we used to eat have become especially important, right? Because we don't have those emotional bonds right now.”
Sentiments over water ice can layer — it can be summer in a cup, it can be a sign of who we are. These days, Gabriel explained, eating water ice is “an act of hope.”
Philadelphia has never cared whether outsiders match our devotion to the foods we know are worth it. Why we call it water ice, and not Italian ice like Americans elsewhere, is something of a mystery. Even so, Philadelphians may disassociate outsider varieties, arguing that they differ in texture from the smoothly spun treats we devour here. (It’s OK for us to be Goldilocks about this.)
If you start water ice history with “the cold slice of heaven” produced in this town, then that would take us back to the Italian American vendors who, well over a century ago, introduced it and established a tradition that continues through a number of water ice institutions to this day. If you look further, the provenance goes back millennia: There are legends that trace fruity frozen treats to figures like first century Roman Emperor Nero and Marco Polo, while one lineage names Persian sharbat as the predecessor to European sherbet, sorbet, or sorbetto.
Not all water ice can travel for long. Some versions can hold up, but many melt faster than ice cream. You can refreeze what dissolves all you want, just like you can reheat a french fry with the understanding that the texture won’t live up to how it was first served. Many water ice shops don’t deliver. In most cases, there are really three options: You can start eating it immediately, you can make a dash to your freezer, or you can taste that joy is fleeting.
That could be why residents are still supporting some neighborhood water ice shops in person. But some water ice makers pointed to the power of comfort food for why customers were still coming up to their windows.
“Business-wise, things have been pretty decent. They’ve been pretty good. That’s a result of how you make people feel,” said Siddiq Moore, who owns Siddiq’s Real Fruit Water Ice in Cobbs Creek and Chester.
When customers come to his stores, Moore explained, he wants people to get the boardwalk experience they might be craving.
“With the funnel cake you can stimulate the whole pleasure principle,” he said of his menu that includes soft serve ice cream, soft pretzels, and panini. “You can stimulate the feel good in people.”
Almost always I eat my water ice outside now. It’s easier to imagine someone could be grilling that way. Having some water ice in good weather, for me, is a meditative practice.
One time, I closed my eyes and got the vibe of a summer holiday when twilight settles and the aunties play songs like “Always and Forever” and “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head.” I don’t always feel transported. Even then, I get a minutes-long respite where I can feel less numb. It offers … a moment of quiet, a break from sitting with the many ways the world is falling apart.