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Tracing the Historical Arc of the Ice Cube Tray

ice cube trayThe Tovolo Perfect Cube Ice Tray made out of silicone first appeared in 2007. These were a big change from the hard plastic ice trays then available—the Tovolo trays were soft, squishy and available in fuchsia, candy apple, Capri blue and other Willy Wonka colors. Each tray made 15 cubes measuring exactly one and a quarter inches per side, which was basically the platonic ideal of an ice cube. Four stacked in a highball glass surrounded by a bubbly drink swiftly became a lifestyle magazine mainstay.

It seemed these emerged overnight, but it actually took two centuries to get here. Ice first started appearing regularly in drinks in the early part of the 19th century—indeed, the growing availability of ice shipped from northern ponds helped fuel the sudden mania for juleps and cobblers from Boston to New Orleans, and ice made in warehouse-size freezers made the post–Civil War cocktail boom possible.

Still, up until the early 20th century, those seeking cold beverages at home would need to buy a block of ice, then hack out usable portions with an ice pick, resulting in irregular-size pieces. Then came the home freezer and various devices to make convenient cubes. A forerunner of Tovolo’s tray was invented by Lloyd Copeman in the 1920s and was made of flexible rubber. He eventually sold his patent to General Motors (see: whatever), after which the rubber tray faded into obscurity.

Which is probably for the best, since the fusty old bendable tray would have been unwelcome during the Golden Age of the Aluminum Ice Cube Tray—an era that celebrated all things light and rigid. In 1949, Edward Roberts of Pennsylvania applied for a patent for the first ice tray featuring an ingenious lever to free the cubes. Not only was it modern and sleek to the touch, but it produced a wondrous squeaky-cracking sound when the lever was activated, training a generation of drinkers to salivate at the sound of impending cocktail hour.

Aluminum trays quickly ran up against a formidable competitor: the automatic in-freezer ice maker, which gained ascendancy in the 1960s. These were convenient, but prone to mechanical failure. Furthermore, they produced odd-shaped ice (ads for ice makers referred to them as “ice crescents”). And for holdouts without ice makers, aluminum was eventually displaced by cheaper hard plastic trays, which produced smaller blocks of tapered ice that looked as if someone had already sucked on one end.

The Tovolo brand was launched in 2004 by Matthew Frank, who had learned the kitchen trade at Williams-Sonoma. Among the early items his firm released was the soon-to-be-iconic silicone ice tray—it was simple, elegant and vaguely Scandinavian. (Tovolo was based in Seattle but adopted a Euro-chic design approach, producing the sort of clever things previously found only in art museum gift shops—much like New York–based OXO, founded in 1990.)

The genius of the soft ice molds was that cubes could be ejected gently and without breaking. The aluminum and hard plastic trays were always hit or miss—if your freezer was too cold, the ice shattered into useful but aesthetically displeasing shards. That never happened with the Tovolo—the cubes were always unwaveringly square, perfectly tailored for perfect cocktails.

Not that these trays were without complaint. Users accustomed to twisting an ice tray and having the ice tumble out all higgledy-piggledy were vexed when Tovolo ice remained stubbornly in place. (“You can’t just ‘twist’ it and loosen up all the cubes at once, as you can regular plastic trays,” groused one Amazon reviewer. “It can take two to three minutes to get one cube out,” complained another, whom one assumes faces significant challenges elsewhere in life.) Instead, each cube had to be individually pressed out from the bottom, resulting in partial dislodging, then fully liberated one at a time by hand.

My own personal complaint is that because the Tovolo tray is so pliable and soft, it can be tricky to convey a fully filled tray to the freezer compartment without sloppage and a watery trail left across the kitchen floor. Subsequently, when the frozen cubes emerge from the less-than- fully-full compartments, they come up short on height, resulting in a rectangular parallelepiped—which is not technically a cube! These make for imperfect cocktails.

To resolve this, I developed my own vintage-meets-modern ice program. At a junk store some years ago, I came upon an old double-wide aluminum tray that produced four cubes across. Two Tovolo trays can sit comfortably athwart this, allowing me to fill both to the very brim, with any overflow going into the tray below, which is also filled. This arrangement then offers a solid, non-bendy platform easily transferred to the freezer with no spillage. The result is geometrically unflawed cubes, with the added bonus of the acoustically pleasing sound of ice being liberated from an aluminum tray, signaling to all within earshot that it’s time for a drink.

Vintage double-wide aluminum ice trays are available on eBay for about $10 to $20. Thank-you notes may be sent to me care of this publication.

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