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:

  1. “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!”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. “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.”
  5. 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.

  • Tim

    Mike! Just calm down and have a beer popsicle.

  • Hellcat13

    GET OFF OF MY LAWN! Damn kids.

    In other Popsicle randomness, they (the Popsicle Pete Popsicle people, whoever the hell they are) have made them longer and thinner. They used to be short and fat and would snap in half easily. Now if you try to snap them in half, 9 times out of 10 the top breaks off. Then you’re left juggling a stickless popsicle top, trying to wolf it down before it melts in your hand, creating the ever-so-painful brain freeze.

    So yeah. There’s that, too.

  • susan

    You are a great man.

  • Jordan

    Popsicles vs. Freezies. Discuss.

  • Sol Pops

    I think this is one of the best philosophical discussions of the emerging popscile/paleta industry in the United States that I’ve read so far. Sol Pops in Portland Oregon is guilty of all of the above, although we have yet to freeze a corn pop (but we shall freeze a corn pop yet, believe you me!) We are an American pop inspired by the Mexican paleta, which to us means we use whole fruit and juices, and we don’t add a lot of water or sweetener. What gives us street cred beyond our culinary heritage is that we have been focused on creating healthy frozen fruit and vegetable treats for the children of Portland since DAY 1 of our development. We figure that if we are going to ask the children of Portland to eat Sol Pops every day, the children of Portland should be affirmatively better off for having eaten them. I have noticed that other artisanal frozen fruit bar companies around the country are beginning to orient themselves towards sustainability issues and wellness issues, and we want to help support them in their shift. We also recognize that we’ve been focused on creating wellness pops that make you better off since 2007. Discuss. Love, Sol Pops in Portland, Oregon

  • Jean

    I discovered your blog a few weeks ago, and I absolutely love both of your writings! Greatly looking forward to more “Cranky Fridays” segments.

    There is an annual 4th of July 10k road race I run most years, and the best think about it is the red, white, and blue “Bomb Pop” popsicle they give you at the finish. I agree, leave popsicles alone.

  • Sally Jackson

    Okay, popsicles are great. Kids love them for good reason. They have the ice cream truck where they can buy popsicles on hot days. Adults get not, too. Why can’t we have a frozen Margareta truck?

  • Jason

    Mike, one additional characteristic of the popsicle that make them so appealing and inviolate is that kids can actually MAKE THEM. While you can buy them off the truck, the only thing my own kids need to be self-empowered is a ice-cube tray and some juice… maybe some tooth-picks too. Just ask any kid what they’d think of a corn popsicle and you’ll get a blank stare followed by an ‘ewwwwwwww’. That’s test enough for any would-be innovators.

  • Scarlettb

    “the children of Portland should be affirmatively better off for having eaten them.”

    I…seriously? Seriously? It’s a POPSICLE. The only ways you need to be “better” after having eaten a popsicle is by 1) being marginally less oppressively overheated 2) being marginally less oppressively dehydrated and 3) having lips that are not a color that lips are meant to be (blue, if possible, but purple or alarmingly cherry-red are also acceptable.)

    If I want to be better off for having eaten something, I will eat some spinach or a whole-grain sandwich. Why do people have to suck the joy out of everything?

  • bilbo baggins

    Mom! Give me a money? “A money”? Do you speak English as a third language?

    • Mike

      Man, I WISH. Only the cat talking in the picture can do THAT.