Cranky Fridays: Leave popsicles alone
Welcome to cranky Fridays, your chance to listen to the Choosy Beggars put on their Old Man Pants and complain bitterly about topics that aren’t actually personal insults to them, but feel that way. For this inaugural entry, Mike would like to talk just a little bit about Popsicles.
Tina and I were sitting out on the deck last night chatting, and we got around to some trendspotting that she had just read about in her last issue of Food & Wine. In amidst a surprisingly exhaustive write-up on the topic of corn, which I had never realized could be such a contentious subject, there was a list of people who were making fresh corn ice pops.
“Inspired by Mexican paletas, US artisans are creating fresh-corn ice pops,” the little footer article read, and I’m actually a little surprised by how angry that one statement made me. So much of it is bullshit, and I am actually at a loss where I should begin discussing why. Honestly, I think I may have to start numbering my outrages:
- “Inspired by” is a phrase that immediately sparks within me a lasting suspicion. I know it’s supposed to express the artistry of cooking and pay some form of homage to those innovators who’ve gone before, but I find just as often it’s like a pitch for a B-movie. Instead of defining something new that might sound awful, it’s simply a reference to something classic that people like: “It’s Predator meets Aliens! We call it Pitch Black, and it’s going to be amazing!”
- Mexican paletas are mostly made with juice, mixed in and frozen with water to form juice-sicles — rather than, say, freezies, which are basically ice infused with heavily flavored syrups. Sometimes there’s also pulp in a paleta, or occasionally sugar. A popsicle with full kernels of corn frozen into it is similar to a paleta in that, well, there are things frozen into other things? I don’t know, but it sure sounds like someone’s trying to steal ethnic street cred.
- And who are those someones? Oh yes, ARTISANS. Ho-lee Christ, if that isn’t a word that awakens in me a deep, black and crispy anger. As near as I can tell, what it takes to qualify as an “artisan” is the practice of hand-crafting more food than you can eat and then selling it to other people… so congratulations, anyone who has ever made cookies for a bake sale! You’re 99% of the way to being an artisan! All you have to do is add in hot chilis or wasabi to anything with chocolate, and you’ll complete your journey.
- “Fresh-corn ice pops”. Now, I am open-minded. I have come a long way in the time that I have known Tina, and the cuisine that she has shared with me. I ate Limburger cheese for that woman, against all the knowledge I amassed watching Warner Brothers cartoons — and I can still say with confidence that I have never thought, “You know what would make this corn more delicious? If it was still frozen and served to me on a stick, possibly amidst some kind of crystallized cream. Made by an ARTISAN.”
- The neo-foodies have started targeting popsicles.
I will share a story with you, now.
A few years ago, I took a solo trip to Italy, to find myself and prove that I could travel to another country without getting myself killed. I had just broken up with a girlfriend of seven years, and was a short time from quitting a job that I had also been in for seven years, so the whole journey had for me the significance of the lifting of a Biblical plague. The trip itself was amazing, I destroyed my feet by walking around city after city for twelve hours at a time, and I lived almost entirely off of beer sold on the street and servings of gelato.
When I was wrapping up my trip in Venice, I realized that everywhere I went there was a remarkable consistency to who was eating which kind of gelato. What few locals there were would be buying the same flavors: lemon, pistachio, chocolate, berry. And us North Americans?
Tourist: “Oh! I’ll have the green tea flavor, please!”
Florentine gelato vendor: (blank stare)
Tourist: “Uh, the… ummm, uh, verde-tea?”
Florentine gelato vendor: (blank stare)
Tourist: “Oh hell, I don’t kno– green-o? Teeee?”
Person next in line: “Please just point at what you want.”
Florentine gelato vendor to his partner: “Pffffffffffft… turistas.”
The thing is, we think we’re being clever and creative with this kind of innovative alteration to classic foods, but we seem mostly to be sullying the original intent. Why do Italians choose to make gelato the way they do? Because they have the right mix of dairy and local flavors to produce a refreshing dessert that is complementary to the rest of their cuisine — authentic gelato isn’t designed to be challenging to the palette, it’s meant to fit in like one note in a song.
Now, before I start getting rhapsodic about culinary traditions, can I really say that about popsicles in Canada? No, because popsicles in Canada have always held a very specific role — being ridiculously sweet, insanely cold and highly perishable treats intended for purchase on the hottest days imaginable. Eating a popsicle meant that you had either committed to the journey to obtain one, notwithstanding the scorching high heat of the day, or else had come across a popsicle vendor patrolling the streets in search of dehydrated children.
Either way, there were likely two things that you were desperately short on: explosive sugar-powered energy, and moisture of any kind whatsoever. For those two ills, nothing spelled relief like the most gigantic popsicle you could buy for less than a dollar. Oh man, and if it had gum or malt balls embedded in it, and was shaped like a ghost or rocket ship? BONUS.
I understand the basic logic of trying to modernize popsicles and re-position them for the culinarily adventurous adult set. Like gourmet-flavored gelatos before this, and novelty ice creams before that, this is tapping into the modern habit of adding a new twist to traditional foods — preferably disguised as something multicultural, so you don’t notice you’re having your childhood re-fried and served to you again. This is a chance for enterprising chefs to concoct recipes that appeal to the adult palette, softening the explosive sugars and substituting in clever ingredients like corn, or exotic ones like (God help us) durian. It’s like fishing: the lure is nostalgia, the bait is grown-up flavors, and the hook is feeling like you’re on the cutting edge of cuisine.
But for God’s sake, the whole reason that popsicles and freezies are successful is precisely because they are unsubtle. There is no texture beyond ice, and no complexity beyond brute force sweetness and ultra-bright colors. Once withdrawn from a freezer, the life of an iced treat can be measured in minutes (if not seconds), and therefore each moment must be as heavy-duty as it possibly can. This is not a platform on which you can demonstrate your deft touch with flavor, and not one over which you can linger over the inventiveness of delicate nuance.
Much less pick corn out of your teeth.
Ultimately what bugs me about this is that pops have become the next victim in an inexorable march of foodists across the nostalgic landscape, holding up another favorite of childhood freshly tattooed with their vision and demanding to be recognized for how clever they are. It’s not that basic, happy, stupid popsicles had anything wrong with them; rather, it’s that they represent a platform that has not — unlike everything from State Fair snacks to martinis — been thoroughly exhausted by experimentation.
So, before this goes too far, let me make this simple request of innovators and ARTISANS worldwide: leave the popsicle alone. There are some foodstuffs that can benefit from subtlety, complexity and intricacy; the popsicle is not among them. What enchanted us in childhood was the balls-out simplicity of them, and it’s what we remember to this day. Invoke the Mexican tradition all you like, but go ahead and test your luck with a Green Tea and Durian paleta in Mexico City — we’ll be waiting to hear how it goes for you.
And if you go anywhere near Slurpees, wow. YOU WILL BE HEARING FROM ME.