Writer in Residence

Cool Stuff

By Pamela Mordecai

Yesterday’s NEW YORK TIMES carried an article in their “Dining” section about Shave Ice, which Florence Fabricant, the author, describes as “popular in Hawaii and Japan as well as other parts of Asia”. Funny. That’s exactly what we called it in Jamaica when I was a child, first that, and then later, 'sno cone.' The ‘sno’ part came about, I guess, as a result of increasingly popular and pervasive Hollywood movies in which we saw snow, and the ‘cone’ part because the shave ice vendors moved to serving it in paper cones.

The Jamaican shave ice of my childhood is exactly the thing described in the NEW YORK TIMES article, which is entitled “Frozen cotton candy? Shave Ice Comes Close”. But shave ice doesn’t at all, at all, either taste like cotton candy or have the consistency of cotton candy, which, by and large, is pretty awful stuff! They might look a little bit alike, but nothing more than that!

The shave ice vendor plied his trade (it was always a man) on the street when I was a child. His cart had an array of bottled syrups, maybe four or five, from which you could choose the flavour you wanted, and a huge chunk of ice, bought from the ice factory or off the ice truck, mounted within easy reach. There was more ice stored in the bottom of the cart, which perhaps explains why shave ice vendors were always male. Frozen water is pretty heavy.

We’d head for his cart after a hot day at school, pennies and palms at the ready, yelling, “Penny shave ice! Penny shave ice!” or, if you were rich, “Tuppence shave ice!” or “Truppence shave ice!”

The shave ice man would shunt his metal scaper across the ice with a smooth movement of his arm which reminded me of my father planing wood at his workbench under the orange tree at home. He’d scrape off a layer of ice, which slid into a sort of metal box, and when it was full, open the shaver, put the rectangle of crushed ice into your fist and cover it by squirting on the syrup of your choice.

It was a trick to suck the cool, rapidly melting concoction into your mouth fast enough so that it didn’t end up all over your school uniform, but even if you didn’t manage that, the bawling out and/or the licks you might get for soiling your uniform when you got home were worth it.

When the shave ice man become the sno cone vendor, things improved, as far as the dangers of getting syrupy water all over your uniform were concerned. And after you’d eaten the sno cone, there might be a ‘tups’ (little bit) of sweet juice collected in the bottom of the cone as ‘brawta’, which is Jamaican for extras.

There was also coconut ice, which could be considered a more sophisticated version of shave ice. It was made with coconut water, which is what the liquid inside the coconut is called, as opposed to coconut milk, which is something different. Coconut ice was in my day a special treat, not widely or always available. One of the places you could get it was Rainbow Club, in Half Way Tree in Kingston. The coconut water was frozen and gound fine, almost to sorbet consistency, but not quite. In it there were bits of coconut jelly – big bits, if you were lucky – coconut jelly being the soft white meat lining the coconut that turns hard as it matures.

Coconut ice isn’t coconut ice cream, which is ice cream made with cow’s milk and coconut milk or coconut cream. Jamaican ice cream, by the way, is not, as Wikipedia says, “made with coconut milk rather than milk or cream as used elsewhere”. Even coconut ice cream has to be made with ‘ordinary’ milk, as far as I know, if it’s to be an ice ‘cream’ rather than an ‘ice’.

And of course this Coconut Ice is not the “traditional English sweet that grandmothers made,” which is what comes up online if you do a search for the term. In Jamaica, that’s known as ‘grater cake’, and is made of grated coconut, lots of sugar, milk, vanilla flavouring, and food colouring, if you want it pink and white. There’s another version, known as ‘cut cake’ or ‘drops’, which is made with brown sugar and flavoured with ginger. The coconut is not as finely grated for drops as it is for grater cake.

Sadly, from what I hear tell, coconut ice is pretty much a thing of the past in my former island home. But not to worry. There are a couple fairly good brands of coconut water to be found in supermarkets in Toronto, complete with – ta-dah! – small cubes of coconut jelly. I’m planning to pour some of this into ice cube trays, put it into the freezer, take it out when it’s half frozen, pass it through the blender, refreeze, and see how close I come to the coconut ice of my youth.

Time to make my own cool stuff.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Pamela Mordecai has been many things: a teacher, a trainer of teachers, a TV host, a diplomatic wife, an anthologist, a writer of poems, stories and textbooks for children, and a writer of criticism, fiction, poetry and plays for those challenged by age. Born and raised in Jamaica, educated there and in the U.S.A., Pam has lived in Toronto for the past 15 years.