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Actually using an icebox?

I'm fascinated by the idea of actually using an icebox as it would have been at the turn of the 20th century. Does anyone know the specifics of the blocks of ice people used to buy? The bigger question is, can you even purchase them anymore?

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  1. I think if you had the space in your kitchen or adjacent area, an icebox would be a great addition for *visual* interest. But, I can't imagine actually using it. Who's going to deliver the blocks of ice? Who's going to monitor the drip pan?

    Maybe getting a block of ice during the holidays or when you're entertaining would be fun, which would handle the overflow of your existing refrigerator. A great conversation piece to be sure, but not practical throughout the year...

    1. The modern equivalent is the cooler that you can buy from any sports store, and the blocks of ice you can buy from the grocery or gas station (many places sell block as well as the smaller cubes). The blocks are not as big as the ones you see in photos of home delivery from a century ago, but a couple would be a functional substitute.

      The wiki article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_box gives an overview. Seems most of the ice that was delivered was cut from frozen lakes in the winter. The larger the block, the longer it would keep in storage, and in the home ice box.

      I suspect that the modern chest type coolers are more efficient than those upright wooden cabinets, just as chest type freezers are more efficient at holding the cold air than uprights. But access to contents isn't as convenient.

      1. Many cities still have ice factories -- there main biz nowadays is supplying retailers with bags of ice. The cakes and cubes are cut from a much larger block. For exampe, Lang Ice in Chicago starts with a 400-pound block. (They sell these large blocks for ice sculptures.)

        Using an ice box for everyday refrigeration requires a huge paradigm shift. It means shopping every day for fresh foods, having dairy delivered daily, and a big emphasis on canning, salting, smoking and other room temperature food techniques.

        This also means an adjustment in palate. Some of the changes would be slight, since smoked, salted and canned foods are still part of our diet, they would just play a lot bigger role. The flavor of meats and cheese would be a stretch since we have become accustomed to these items being continuously chilled. The notion of serving unrefrigerated chicken and beef is almost beyond a matter of taste in the US -- it is enough to have the health department shut you down. Delicacies, perhaps, in other countries, but not here. Meat would become hard to do every day -- expect a return to traditional cuisine where meat is a main dish on Sundays and holidays.

        And of course, anything frozen becomes a luxury -- ice boxes are unable to keep things frozen. They cool by melting the ice, which occurs at 32F, so best case scenario in an ice box is that parts towards the bottom might get as low as mid-30's, with the remainder a lot warmer. (OK, there are exceptions: frozen CO2 ("dry" ice) and frozen salt water.)

        1 Reply
        1. re: MikeB3542

          Mike, I really like how you brought up the idea of shifting one's thinking. I've been reading a lot about the way the kitchen used to work, including preservation techniques. There is something really wonderful about buying that special piece of meat from the butcher for Sunday lunch, and really savoring it, thereby taking away that everyday need for some kind of filler meat in every meal.

        2. Ice factories and delivery of blocks of about one meter long with the cross section of about a shoe box is still common all over Asia. The ice is insulated using rice husks. Ice is mostly broken up and used to chill down canned and bottled drinks.

          1. I'm curious why you want to use an icebox. It's a cooler, with a big block of ice you could probably replicate refrigerator temperatures for a day or two, but unless you have a thermometer you really wouldn't know for sure if your food is safe.

            I think in the old days the ice that you could buy were (big) blocks cut from natural ice in cold temperatures, insulated so it would stay frozen. Ice from a commercial freezer (that you'd buy) is "hard" ice, at -25C while ice from an ice machine is "soft" ice at close to 0C but it wouldn't take long for hard ice to become soft, so unless you don't have a freezer yourself, your best bet is to freeze water in a pan in your freezer and use the block in your icebox.