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Review: ‘Of Ice and Men,’ by Fred Hogge

In the end, Hogge covers what he wants to and he generally does it well, as the book winds its way anecdotally through key developments of ice and man. Much of what he does include is fascinating, such as the chapter on medical hypothermia, the chilling of a patient for heart surgery. The idea, it seems, dates back to Hippocrates in the fourth century B.C. There are good stories of air-conditioning and refrigeration and cocktails, though these are often fragmentary.

You cannot cover everything, especially in a small book, but some omissions are puzzling. Why, for instance, is so much of the book devoted to skiing, while the author spends almost no time on the certainly more relevant ice skating? And if skiing, why the Jamaican track star Usain Bolt? I suppose Hogge just likes him. Why does he tell the story of ice cream’s origins as a luxury product and then overlook the even better story of its democratization? What of the pushcart vendor who invented cones to replace his unhygienic little glass dishes (pandemic-relevant!), or the controversy over who invented sundaes?

I found it odd that he did not spend more time on the development of frozen food. Perhaps this is because Hogge assumes that the late-19th- and early-20th-century freezing trucks and train cars settled the West, and as such had an outsize impact on American eating habits. In truth, most of this early frozen food was so horrible that no one wanted to eat it; it was served at prisons — until reformers had it banned as inhumane. It took General Foods two decades to convince people that their flash-frozen product was edible. Indeed, frozen food really didn’t seriously have an effect on American life until after World War II. This is also the story of freezers, which should surely be part of an ice saga.

Hogge infrequently makes small historical errors. It happens; I’ve made mistakes, too. The one I’d deem serious is his assertion that after the American Revolution, and before ice, New England had little to trade. In fact, these ports were hugely profitable, trading in fish, molasses, rum and — shamefully — enslaved people from Africa. The success of such trade was, indeed, one of the reasons Massachusetts colonials pushed so strongly for independence.

But, this error aside, reading the book can be a pleasure. At a certain point, you just have to go with its seemingly shambolic structure — Hogge will be Hogge. And then, after all of the wandering, the seemingly arbitrary digressions, the frustrating omissions, the film references, Hogge does the truly unexpected: He ties the book up beautifully, with a detailed, well-explained chapter on climate change. There was, it seems, a method to his madness. Refrigeration, air-conditioning, frozen food, even skiing — all of these things have contributed to global warming. The book opens with the harrowing exploration of the frozen Arctic frontier and then, in part because of two centuries of ice inventions, the same Arctic frontier is melting.

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