Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ices of the LES

A few years ago, it was announced that the egg cream required reinvigorating by the foodie tastemakers in town, and they went about artisanalizing the thing, mixing it with flavors like espresso and hazelnut. This started at the Chocolate Bar, then on 7th St. Today, on the same block, shaved ice is getting its turn with the glamour treatment as the People's Pops pop-up comes to the neighborhood to serve a classic Lower East Side treat in local, greenmarket flavors.

When this happened to the egg cream, I did an egg cream tour of the Lower East Side. Now, I offer a shaved ice tour. But first a bit of history.


Piraguero, 1920

In New York neighborhoods wherever Puerto Ricans settled, a cup of flavored shaved ice is known as a piragua and the men who do the shaving are piragueros. Wikipedia tells us that the word "is derived from the combination of the Spanish words 'Pirámide' (pyramid) and 'Agua' (water)" because the piragua has a pointy, conical shape.

For nearly a century, the city's piragueros have served shaved ice the same way--from a rattling cart loaded with bottles of syrup, from a big block of ice, and for very little money. Today, in the East Village and Lower East Side, you can still find them, mostly in Alphabet City and along Delancey, where Latin culture still manages to hang on.


photo by John Albok, 1940, E. Harlem

In my search for piragueros, the northwesternmost one I found was on 7th Street and Avenue B, across from Vazac's Horseshoe Bar. His blue cart under a red and white umbrella offered a respite from the heat.



He wore a second-hand apron from Katz's Deli. His glass bottles fit neatly into circular holes in the cart's wooden top. His block of ice was smaller than most, but it sent up a fine spray of shavings as he worked it. I got my favorite flavor, tamarindo, with a skinny straw for $1.00.



I found another by following a trail of happy ice eaters that led me into the winding paths of the Campos Plaza NYCHA projects off 12th Street between Avenues B and C. The cart stood by a playground, sheltered beneath a tropically decorated umbrella.



The white-painted wooden cart featured glass bottles and a large block of ice protected from the sun by a plaid tea towel. The piraguero shaped the ice's tall head with a gloved hand and his metal shaver. Coconut, a classic flavor, cost $1.00 for a small.



The next piraguero was parked on Avenue C at 6th Street. This gentleman wore a shirt with horses embroidered over the pockets and a weathered hat. His cart was made of wood, with round holes to hold the bottles, and painted a lovely shade of pistachio green. His ice was protected by a green garbage bag.



He gave the ice something of a pyramidal top with the metal scraper and, like the last two piragueros, served it with a slender cocktail straw. Another tamarindo for $1.00.



On Avenue C and 3rd, the piraguero keeps his syrups not in glass bottles, but in plastic ones recycled from supermarket colas. His block of ice is protected from the sun by a rooster-decorated tea towel and a red, white, and blue umbrella. His cart is also made of wood.



From him I got the blue--raspberry? blueberry?--a flavor with a startling color best left to kids for its too-sweet taste. This one was not shaped into a pyramid, but it was served with a cocktail straw and cost $1.00.



I did not find one piraguero on all of Avenue D, nor in East River Park, where I remember them being years ago. Delancey, however, was a hotbed. Here, the scene changes a bit as the piragueros feature more fanciful straws. At Delancey and Clinton, from a wood and metal cart painted a mossy green, an assortment of colorful bendy straws are kept in a repurposed juice bottle.



The piraguero matches the straw to your ice--in this case, orange for orange. This one tasted pleasantly like Gatorade. It also cost $1.00.



Finally, at Delancey and Norfolk, from a stainless steel cart reclaimed from a hot dog vendor, we find a piraguero who shapes his ice with a funnel to get that perfect pyramidal top. Before he adds the syrup, he presses the funnel onto the ice, giving it a point. With no circular slots to hold his bottles on the hot dog cart, he keeps them in red plastic Coca-Cola trays. His ice block is protected inside a plastic garbage bag.



Like his Delancey competitor, he pairs the flavor with its corresponding straw--here it's purple for grape--and, like every other piraguero around, he charges $1.00 for the small.



There may be more out there, but I stopped here. Later, for comparison, I tried the People's Pops pop-up.

I had been wondering where the piragueros get their blocks of ice. The server at People's Pops was telling another customer that there are places "around here" to get block ice, but they get theirs from "a guy in Pennsylvania." He talked about the ice for a bit--the impressive size and weight of it--then talked about local strawberries, how it's late in the season for strawberries, but due to a frost, they were able to have them for their popsicles.



The block of ice sat uncovered and melting in the sun. There were just two bottles with two flavors: rhubarb or red plum. The small cup cost $2.50, it is not shaped into a pyramid, and does not come with a straw of any kind. Instead, you get a flat wooden spoon. The ice is difficult to maneuver with the spoon. I wished for a straw. The mixed red plum and rhubarb flavors are hard to discern, like a subtle herbal tea, more ice than juice.

While the classic piraguas really are refreshing drinks, this one's more like a sno-cone that you have to figure out how to get into your mouth.



This seems to be the future of shaved ice in the city. Last year, the Times announced that the snow cone has "grown up" and it's only become more popular since with Imperial Woodpecker Sno-Balls, the Kelvin Slush truck, and many others upscaling this poor person's treat. On the Lower East Side, while an icy war rages between Ray's Candy and NYC Icy, at Pulino's the chef "freezes a purée of almonds, sugar and water, then sends it through the fine grating blade of her Robot Coupe R2N so that a light almond-flavored snow gathers in heaps."

But outside of the icy hubbub, beyond the gee-whiz factor, in an alternate universe where "artisanal" isn't even mentioned, you can still find the real thing. And, yes, it's still the best.

24 comments:

Melanie said...

A great relief from the heat. My favorite is the coconut variety. There is also a man on Ave. A & 11th Street who sells shaved ice. He is a bit younger than the rest. I believe a woman sells the shaved ice on Norfolk. First woman I have seen selling it. Stay cool and refreshed with a shaved ice. Thanks for the round-up Jeremiah. I have a few photos on my blog of 2 of the sellers.

EV Grieve said...

Impressive research!

Anyways, I'd go to these street vendors, but, like, I never see deals for them on Groupon!

TT said...

i have heard stories that some of the old school guys use the towel that covers the ice to wipe the sweat off their brow. did you see this occurring? eww

Bowery Boogie said...

that guy at Delancy and Norfolk is the best.

Jeremiah Moss said...

nope, didn't see any sweat wiping.

ckdozi said...

Thank you for this, for my love of shaved ice, yesterday had a People's Pop - Plum, then straight on over to 11th and A for a large grape,,have new spots to check visit.

Claribel said...

Love all the colors at the piraguero carts! Next time I'm in the LES, I'm making a bee-line for that tamarindo. But I'm a Marino's loyalist, so you've inspired me to stop at the corner deli later today!

esquared said...

more importantly, do the piraguas contain eelctrolytes

i don't have an app for this, thus can't find these piragueros you talk of...

79rigid said...

I don't know from shaved ice,but I'm willing to educate myself.Thanks JM.
P.S.My favourite egg cream was at Gem.Haven't had one from Ray's though.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jeremiah, for cooling us down during this hot week! Lately, I have also noticed some shops selling Hawaiian "Shave" Ice in artisinal flavors. This differs from Caribbean "Shaved" Ice due to its very fluffy texture. In Hawaii they serve it with ice cream and sweet red beans on the bottom, but here we get just ice flavored with Madagascar vanilla or cactus pear, at 10 times the price. I also fondly remember "Sno Cones", especially those at a stand on Lafayette and Bond about 12 years ago. They even sold liver flavor for dogs!

Anonymous said...

Great article Jeremiah, NYTimes-worthy! If you ever reveal yourself, this story would make a great video segment for a food or travel channel/site.

Andy

P.S. These men take great pride in the carts and ices. Given a choice between an "old school guy" cart and a hipster pop-up, the established gentleman get's my business every time. Bet a droplet or two of hipster sweat has christened the ice block on 7th.

bowery boy said...

This is just a terrific post! When outsiders knock our efforts to preserve urban neighborhoods, this is what I want them to know about. Are we such out-dated old fogies, because we like having these simplier things in life? That we enjoy seeing the smile on a kid's face when s/he belly's up to the cart? I'm tired of being made to feel like I'm holding the progress of the world back just cuz I enjoy seeing things like this continue on my local corner. Well done, Jeremiah.

Anonymous said...

forget the old fart on the corner of delancey and norfolk. i was there last week ACROSS THE STREET taking a simple photo of the entire new two story retail building for my storefront collections. I was there a few min because there's a lot of traffic etc. i later pass by him and he waves me over and points to the cart, i can't understand what he's saying, does he want me to buy an ice, i politely turn him down, then i understand him as he mumbles, "you take picture of cart", he asks if I took a photo of his cart. I point up to the building next to him. he says again pointing to the cart, "no picture". i point again to the building with a forced smile.


jeesus, don't worry old man, gentrification will come for you really soon. you will be just a sad old memory.. I'd rather see a friendly gelato cart where you are standing than some old fart selling ices with liquids of questionable origin. go buy your ices from the guy two blocks up on clinton, not this fart.
--nychinato...

Marty Wombacher said...

Great post today! I loved the descriptions and the photos. My favorites were the ones that match the straws to the flavors.

Holly Lama said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing it with us. Wish I was there.

Goggla said...

As the summer is getting hot as hell, you ought to lead an LES Shaved Ice Tour (with souvenir swizzle straws??).

Long live the ice shavers!

Anonymous said...

wonderful post! I need an orange RIGHT NOW! - BN -

Jeremiah Moss said...

i could use one, too. it is too HOT out there.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

These are great! There are a couple right around the corner from me, & lots heading down into Sunset Park. This part of Fifth has a ton of good street carts & trucks, some of them there all night.

David said...

excellent piragua article

Sammy said...

I grab a shaved ice from these dudes for a buck all the time. I also enjoy the shaved ice from People's Pop which is tasty. What I have been lamenting for the last 12 years are Slush Puppies. And last weekend I saw a small sign for slushies...and fuck me, a little pizza joint on the corner of Essex and Houston serves up honest to god Slush Puppies. I had a lemon lime and it was amazing!

Spartacus said...

Great post. Growing up in 6th Street and Avenue D, I recall piraguas and eggcreams from Rosie's candy store on 7th Steet (just West of Avenue D) fondly. But why do people insist on calling the East Village "Alphabet City". It's a stupid name that was pulled from a really bad 80s movie. I realize I'm fighting an uphill battle here, but it really is a stupid name.

Keithimus said...

You can still get piragua all over northern Harlem and in Washington Heights, where I live. Though, I find that almost no one ever pays much attention to Northern Manhattan. Maybe they will when it starts disappearing too in a few years!

Anonymous said...

Made me remember my childhood in the 80's in NYC. Visiting family in the summer, the spraying hydrants, the smell of hot asphalt and sticky red fingers and stains on our shirts from the piraguas we consumed whenever we could scrounge up a buck or two. loved it. thank you.