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Jul 15, 2008 12:29 PM

Ice: A Forgotten History

There are upwards of 100 vendors of "shaved ice" in the city. Depending on the neighborhood, it might be known by the Mexican name of raspados, or as the Puerto-Rican piragua (in Humboldt Park), or as sno-balls/sno-cones in various neighborhoods (both black and white) of the South Side. The name doesn't really matter because today shaved ice has become a generic product that assumes the same form everywhere: finely machine-pulverized ice doused with industrial syrup ("Sno-ball" brand), dispensed from white plastic gallon jugs in a dozen or more luridly-colored synthetic flavors (the electric blue "bubble-gum" is specially popular with kids). The snow-like texture is meant to duplicate certain regional styles of ices (the delicately-textured "sno-balls" of New Orleans for instance) but these versions are really nothing more than sugared air, engineered to be easily and quickly slurped on a hot summer day.

"True" grated ice however is almost extinct from the face of our city. To my knowledge, there are only 4 or 5 street vendors of "true" raspados left today. Three of these raspados carts are "permanently" located on 26th St. at the corners of Drake, of Central Park and of Lawndale. I have been told that there are at least two other such carts stationed on residential side streets in La Villita (one supposedly located on Avers is said to be a very good example), but I still have not been able to locate them. All three of these vendors still use the old-fashioned handheld raspador, a hollow rhomboidal tool with what looks like a carpenter's plane on one side (in Rome, where there is also a long tradition of grated ice, called grattachecche, this instrument is in fact simply called the pialla, or wood plane.) This grater is pressed down over a large block of ice and then driven back and forth forcefully to produce fine even granules which collect in the small hollow body of the contraption.

The texture of ice produced by this type of raspador is very particular: it is evenly-sized and dry; it does not clump up, or if it does, separates easily back into what looks like very small rice-shaped grains. These ice granules are delightfully crunchy and are solid enough to hold up even the thickest and chunkiest of fruit syrups (called jarabe de frutas in Spanish). In the Philippines, this type of ice (made with the very same handheld grater: when was it invented? and by whom!) is called "kinaskas" (kaskas is the action of scraping or sanding). When I first came to this city after school in the early 90s, there were still Filipino restaurants that made halo-halo with "hielo na kinaskas". Today, almost all Southeast Asian restaurants in the US use either a powerful blender or an ice-crushing machine to make bubble tea and other types of iced beverages and desserts. I had a discussion about this yesterday with the owner of a Filipino restaurant who laughed and said "who's going to be stupid enough to spend all that energy scraping back and forth, back and forth?"

But "shaved ice" made with an ice-crushing machine is very different: "smithereens" of large pebbles and small shards, melting at uneven rates. Annieb tells me that up until the late 70s, one could find on Milwaukee around Division, up to a dozen vendors of aguas frescas vendors that also offered raspados shaved from large blocks of ice exposed to the air of the city. She speculated that they might have gone even before the first of the Chicago City Council's "elote wars". I imagine that this disappearance might also be a function of the creeping gentrification of the entire city through the 80s and the 90s (Tracy Letts evokes something of this disappearing Chicago in "Superior Donuts" which plays at Steppenwolf through August.) In this larger social context, the existence of those remaining raspados vendors in La Villita can be seen as a political quirk. It is an existence possible only because La Villita is its own world, a self-enclosed extension of Mexico in Chicago. La Villita (headed by alderman Ricardo Munoz) is also one of the few wards of the city where the long-running conflicts between storefront owners and ambulant street vendors have largely been resolved. Today, this existence is also an anachronism. It represents a forgotten taste and a forgotten history. It is "another way of doing" (one of "les arts de faire" Michel de Certeau writes about) that adds to the unseen, unheralded manyness that quietly enriches the life of a city. One of these days, this "difference" will also disappear without warning from our streets forever.

Of the three vendors of "raspados de frutas naturales" that I listed above, Senor Guadalupe's is without doubt the best. His cart is always parked outside La Chiquita Supermercado (26th at Central Park), where he has been selling his raspados for seven years. In fact, he pays not just the City of Chicago for a license to operate the cart, but pays the supermarket AS WELL for the privilege of parking outside (and possibly also for limited use of some facilities). Such a payment for operating in what is in effect public space seems at first like quite the racket, but in the context of the street vendors' struggle against the business community, the arrangement might actually represent the most expedient kind of political compromise.

Senor Guadalupe is from a little village outside Xalapa and his business continues the Veracruzan tradition of raspados, a tradition which finds its most famous expression in the "glorias y raspados" carts that ply the seafront promenade (the Malecon) in the port city of Veracruz. These beautifully-painted carts enjoy mythic status in the city (for a look, google-image "glorias y raspados"). The jarabes, or fruit syrups are prepared from scratch from fresh seasonal fruit such as guanabana, passionafruit/maracuya, mamey (a busy homemaker wishing to make jarabe-or aguas frescas-at home has the option of buying from pre-cut fruit sold in bags by a whole line of specialist vendors lining the sidewalk across the main gate of the Art-Moderne central market of the city). Senor Guadalupe has 12 different flavors (this is a typical number in a "glorias y raspados" cart). The blue "chicle" ("bubble gum") is clearly synthetic, but others like the tamarindo are made by boiling whole pods and then extracting the pulp. The recipes and exact process for making jarabe is always a closely-guarded secret, but I suspect that in this case, a combination of fresh fruit (whenever available) and high-quality frozen pulp is used. His wonderful jarabe de guayaba is so rich and thick (and studded with seeds) that it almost seems like a marmalade.

A common way of enjoying raspados is to order it topped with lechera, or condensed milk (unless you have chosen a flavor inappropriate for to addition, such as rompope). As with the grattachecches of Rome, which might be topped with small cubes of coconut and other fruits over the fruit syrup, the raspados of Veracruz may also be crowned with bananas (and strawberries) in which case they become "glorias". (The term "gloria" is strictly regional, specific to Veracruz; it is not offered in these carts since the word is not often understood by Mexicans from other regions). There are other derivative forms, such as the diablito (a raspado of a sourer fruit, mixed with chile powder, fresh-squeezed lime juice and salt) and the chamoyada (basically a diablito with the addition of chamoy sauce), but chamoy and chamoyada will be the subjects of a whole separate second part following this one.

My favorite of all of Senor Guadalupe's toppings is the coconut and guava. This specific combination is hardly a secret as it has become a neighborhood favorite! The usual crowd waits patiently and watches Senor Guadalupe as he goes through the slow process of driving the raspado back and forth, back and forth. He then ladles the coconut jarabe on first (little slivers of coconut in this jarabe coming to rest on top of the ice); then over it, the thick jam-like jarabe de guayaba. I would not ask for lechera with this one: it's rich enough already! Now you are ready to dig into your raspado while hanging out with the rest of the neighborhood, watching the world go by!



In Indochina, a different type of a wheel-turned screw-type mill is traditionally used for shaving ice; I have written appreciatively of these beautiful iron antiques in an old thread on Phnom Penh.

The word "jarabe" comes from Moorish Spain and reminds us that fruit syrups flavoring "snow" is enjoyed not only in the classical world (it is a favorite summertime treat in imperial Rome) but also in Persia and throughout the Arab world. In Granada, there is still a "camino de los Neveros" which was the ancient route taken by the porters of snows as they bring down ice/snow from the Sierra Nevada.

The best history of "ice" is still the one written by Elizabeth David ("Harvest of the Cold Months") although the book focuses mostly on thse modern forms that led to what we now call "ice cream". I have also found several stimulating passages on this subejct in Piero Camporesi's "Il brodo indiano". Elsewhere I have mentioned that the great Mexican poet Salvador Novo, who was also the official historian (cronista) of the city of Mexico reported the existence of "neverias" in that city in the 18th c. It is unclear to me whether these neverias served something like our grated ice, or forms of "ice cream" contemporary with early examples of these from late colonial America.

"Italian ice" is something else of course, but I do not doubt that "Italian ice" vendors in Chicago also offered "grated ice/raspados/grattachecche" once upon a time. This is a history that is largely unknown and forgotten. If anyone has any information on this subject, please let me know.

This post is a continuation of this earlier thread which has evolved into too large and too unwieldy a grab-bag:

On this post and the upcoming posts orelated topics, I continue some of the themes on that earlier thread.


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  1. Richard, thanks for a wonderful essay and for highlighting the raspado vendors on 26th St. I look forward to the next installment!


    1. RST, you'll be happy to know those old-fashioned hand-cranked ice shavers are still used all over Malaysia. In fact, this post inspires me to investigate the Indian Malaysian-dominated cendol business!

      1 Reply
      1. re: foodfirst

        I'd really love it if you and Dave could document some of these old-fashioned ice shavers on your website! I don't know when that hollow rhomboid-shaped pialla/raspador for grattachecca/grattachecche was invented but the technology is probably very ancient. We know (see E David) that "snow" brought down from the mountain was enjoyed in China, in Persia and in Imperial Rome. But snow cannot possibly be transported (unless it is compacted first) and even more importantly, it cannot be kept in the form of snow (E David is invaluable re ancient "refrigeration": large pits are dug in the ground or large ice-houses are built where immense blocks of ice could be kept for months even in sweltering climate.) The "snow" that Nero and Alexander the Great ate must have been something like our grated ice-perhaps even ice that has been shaved with a plane like this one...? The technology for those Indochinese/Malaysian/Indian ices follows a different prototype which as I suggested above might be the screw-type olive/wine press: instead of pressing down, a kind of shaving "mill" is made to turn. The shaving blade works in a different way, and the texture of the resulting "snow" is also different. I wait to hear more about this from you.


      2. Post #3
        Superb Mexican ice cream on one great chow-block

        Excellent helados could be found one block away from Senor Guadalupe's cart, at the corner of Central Park and 27th. The cart is marked "Tepoznieves" (not related to the well-known ice cream chain of the same name originating from Tepoztlan,Morelos) and belongs to the Garcia family. I believe that this family runs three of these carts which I have run into now and again around La Villita. I have never managed however to pin down a "permanent" location until quite recently. Now I know that Sr. and Sra. Garcia could be found virtually every afternoon at this corner across the street from St. Agnes of Bohemia.

        Friends have always found it perplexing that I have never gotten too excited at the mushrooming of Mexican heladerias (such as those discussed on the "gaspacho" thread linked above) in Chicago. Flamingos in Berwyn, the place Amata mentioned in Brighton Park, El Sabor de Michoacan on 55th-they're all cool and fun, what with their three, four dozen unique, fascinating ice cream flavors (jobo, nanche, tequila, elote, rose petals, sometimes even mole etc etc). But those who have tasted the greatest examples of ice cream in Mexico (and there are many many examples of this) know that this is a class apart. This is ice cream so rich and lush that it is almost like biting into a piece of ripe fruit. There's nothing at all comparable to an helado of zapote negro (itself one of the greatest fruits known to mankind) from one of the Tocumbo (town in Michoacan famous for their ice cream makers//they've taking their art everywhere and are not to be found just in Tocumbo) helados/nieves specialists during the winter months when this fruit is at its peak. I dearly recall the helado de guanabana at Dos Polos in Coatepec studded with the big black seed still encased in their pulp: you can't even tell when pulp ends and ice cream begins. Rather like Chuang-tsu and his butterfly: you don't know if it is ice cream dreaming of an existence as fruit, or fruit dreaming of an existence as ice cream.

        That the ice cream offered by the Garcia family is not quite on this level is not a shameful thing at all: this is superb artisanal ice cream, hand-churned in garrafas, limited only perhaps by the non-availability in Chicago of the highest highest quality of fresh raw materials. No exotic fruits like mamey or guanabana of course, but superb work with coconut, fresa, and even a mango flavored with the very pure taste of very high-quality pulverized chamoy (more on chamoy later). My favorite flavor of all is the nuez (walnut).


        3 Replies
        1. re: RST

          Another great recommendation, Richard -- I hope your posts inspire some new chowhounds to explore La Villita.

          One question -- you say no mamey "of course" -- but I saw plenty of mameys for sale at Cermak Produce on Saturday. I think they should continue to be available in Chicago through mid September or so. Do you think some of the artisanal helado/nieve makers might offer mamey during this season?

          1. re: Amata

            No too expensive. Don't forget the small cup of nieve at the Garcias' is $1.25 for two bolitas. I can't even figure out how they make money with the nuez: it's studded with whole walnuts (steeped in scalded milk etc etc)

            I do wish that some of these Mexican nieves-makers would experiment with local fruits like cherries. It's peak of cherry season and a humongous basket (the plastic bag was about the size of my head) of Michigan cherries at my farmers' market (Lincoln Square) was $7 yesterday-ALMOST doable I think-specially if they go straight to the source (why not: local Mexican cheesemakers go directly to Indiana etc farmers for milk). Unfortunately cherry is not a traditional Mexican flavor. (For more on the on-going cherry season, see the excellent discussion on the concurrent thread on "tart/sour cherries")

            Ditto tuna/xoconostle, which are available as flavors at Flamingos etc and which are available as fruit at supermarkets, but they're just too expensive.

          2. re: RST

            The Garcia family owns three carts and I saw all three of them yesterday after spending a delightful lazy Sunday afternoon reading a novel (Enrique Vila-Matas' Doctor Pasavento) at Cafe Catedral (25th and Christiana). They were all clustered near St Agnes of Bohemia (supposedly they never really stray too far from these couple of blocks) and I realized that only one of the three carts is actually marked "Tepoznieves"; the other two are unmarked. All three however are easily recognizable bec of the color scheme on the awning-an attractive dark pine green banded with narrow orange/yellow stripes. These are well-built "modern" ice-cream carts (the main cart is gas-powered I think), quite different from the makeshift affairs usually seen around town. The carts were mobbed all afternoon long by family coming to/from their afternoon stroll on 26th or from mass. I tried several of their flavors that I had never had before: a superlative "elote", etc. This is really excellent ice cream-certainly among the very best to be found anywhere in Chicago. At the least it is quite possibly the very best "Mexican" ice cream in the city!

            A correction to the original post:

            The brand name of the industrial syrup is Snobal (TM) not Snoball as I had above.

            Yesterday there was also a raspado vendor of this same sort at 26th and Spaulding.


          3. As always... incredible, invaluable work my friend.

            1. Post #4
              Central Park between 26th and 27th: one hell of a chowblock

              This is a homage to my friend Rob (Vitalinfo) and his notion of a "chowblock":

              Well, here's one for you, Rob! Not only does this stretch boast Senor Guadalupe's "raspados de frutas naturales" cart and the "Tepoznieves" folks, it also has two wonderful restaurants in El Vitor Naco Tacos (2648 S. Central Park) and Los Candiles (2624 S. Central Park). I want to go through them quickly as they are related to the original post at least geographically and I might never again have the chance to mention them (there is so so much else to write about!) This fourth piece on the thread is the last. The only one after this will be the missing Post #2 which will be on chamoy and chamoyadas using both the chamoyada at Senor Guadalupe's and the mango con chamoy at Tepoznieves as example and tying it all together.

              I would not call Los Candiles a great restaurant. But this belongs to "solid middle" on which greatness is built. And Chicago has many high-quality restaurants like it: La Condesa, Taqueria La Oaxaquena, Elias etc. All of these feature a vast menu of all the expected national favorites (tampiquena, chilaquiles, milanesa, huevos al gusto, enchiladas, huachinango al mojo and other seafood specialties etc) as well as dishes that have come to be very popular in Chicago, a crossover success with folks from different regions (e.g. lomo en chile de arbol). These menus might be inflected with the careful adiditon of one or two regional dishes reflecting the region of the owners origin: La Condesa has its Guerrerense items, La Oaxaquena has its one or two token "Oaxacan" dishes, Candiles has a couple of listed specialties from San Luis Potosi: an enchiladas Huastecas (rather like the "tacos rojos" or "tacos placeras" of San Luis: filled with shredded chicken or picadillo, topped messily with carrots, potatoes, black beans), a so-called Pollo Altiplano (an invented dish) and Enchiladas Potosinas. The Candiles has excellent little details: e.g. a pitcher of limonada (serving about 6 glasses) is $5. Very cozy place. The service is warm and friendly.

              (Incidentally, another place in this neighborhood with enchiladas potosinas, Casa Cantu, located across from Troha's, closed about two weeks ago.


              Also parenthetical: La Condesa might be only the second Chicago restaurant with a branch in Mexico-or for this matter in any foreign country. The first one is Charlie Trotter's "C" of course. Last year, I had the chance to visit La Condesa in Teloloapan, Guerrero which is located outside town, on the highway from Iguala. Chicagoan Timoteo Manjarrez is also mayor of Teloloapan:

              Quickly as I have to run. GREAT barbacoa at El Vitor Naco Tacos. It's barbacoa de borrego (Morelos style) and it is OUTSTANDING. The panza (like the montalayo of Michoacanos: heart, lungs, liver etc) is outstanding. The cabrito en salsa verde is also outstanding. These folks are from Santiago Tianguistenco/Capaluac (near Toluca). More details on this elsewhere (possibility of asking for parts of the head, lovely consomme with garbanzos, the borrego is about 8 months: not too-tender lamb, not strong-flavored mutton either etc etc). The default tortillas for theri tacos are the excellent factory tortillas from El Milagro but nixtamal is used for sopes and huaraches and is available for requests for tortillas hechas a mano. We need to do a thread on regional variants of barbacoa soon: the Hidalgo-style barbacoa (borrego) at Taqueria Leo, the barbacoa at El Cabrito (Guerrerense), the barbacoa de ternera at El Barzon etc etc But then I have also been promising a thread on regional variant of birria to be found in Chicago for a long time: the birria tatemada of Birrieria La Barca etc etc although Mike has something on this subject in I think this week's Reader.


              4 Replies
              1. re: RST

                Hey R.... El Vitor Naco... do they have anything that might fall into the Contemporary Naco cuisine movement? Over the top, gaudy, tasty, inexpensive etc., For example, for lunch today I invented the following Naco style Hot Dog:

                > Whole Wheat Bun
                > Smear of Mole Rojo paste
                > Sauteed Cabbage with Sweet Onions, Marjoram, Black Pepper & Cumin
                > Turkey Dog (Run of the Mill)
                > Diced Heirloom Tomatoes
                > Crumbled Cotija
                > Dusting of Chipotle Powder

                Very Naco!

                1. re: RST


                  Great series of essays! The last itme I had an actual shaved ice was at the Puerto Rican fest in Humboltd Park about 3 years ago; delicious coconut with the great texture you mention.
                  The other point to add: at one of my favorites in far west West Chicago, Bybys, they make thier birria/consomme with garbonzos and a few chunks of organ meats as well. I believe they are from Oaxaca but not positive. They also make excellent tlacoyos (sp?) and a respectable huitlacoche quesadilla. Further south in Aurora there is an independent Mexican ice cream shop that does ices and some interesting ham and hot dog sandwich combos. Can't remember the name but will take another look.


                  1. re: tonyg

                    Wow! the Fiestas Puertorriquenas of course! The ice cream/shaved ice carts are not allowed to roam around inside the fenced area of course-but cluster just around the main entrance. The last time I was there I saw at least two dozens of these carts in one cluster-it was like stumbling into a wonderland of ice cream carts! I remember thinking to myself: where did they all come from! diodn't know there were that many ice cream carts in Humboldt Park. It's great photo-op-some of those carts are very very beautiful.

                    I need to meet up with you one of these days at ByBys!

                    Haha, you naco!

                    1. re: RST


                      I was in Oxford, Mississippi last October. I made a small video clip of their local shaved ice process: