There are upwards of 100 vendors of "shaved ice" in the city. Depending on the neighborhood, it might be known by the Mexican name of raspados, or as the Puerto-Rican piragua (in Humboldt Park), or as sno-balls/sno-cones in various neighborhoods (both black and white) of the South Side. The name doesn't really matter because today shaved ice has become a generic product that assumes the same form everywhere: finely machine-pulverized ice doused with industrial syrup ("Sno-ball" brand), dispensed from white plastic gallon jugs in a dozen or more luridly-colored synthetic flavors (the electric blue "bubble-gum" is specially popular with kids). The snow-like texture is meant to duplicate certain regional styles of ices (the delicately-textured "sno-balls" of New Orleans for instance) but these versions are really nothing more than sugared air, engineered to be easily and quickly slurped on a hot summer day.
"True" grated ice however is almost extinct from the face of our city. To my knowledge, there are only 4 or 5 street vendors of "true" raspados left today. Three of these raspados carts are "permanently" located on 26th St. at the corners of Drake, of Central Park and of Lawndale. I have been told that there are at least two other such carts stationed on residential side streets in La Villita (one supposedly located on Avers is said to be a very good example), but I still have not been able to locate them. All three of these vendors still use the old-fashioned handheld raspador, a hollow rhomboidal tool with what looks like a carpenter's plane on one side (in Rome, where there is also a long tradition of grated ice, called grattachecche, this instrument is in fact simply called the pialla, or wood plane.) This grater is pressed down over a large block of ice and then driven back and forth forcefully to produce fine even granules which collect in the small hollow body of the contraption.
The texture of ice produced by this type of raspador is very particular: it is evenly-sized and dry; it does not clump up, or if it does, separates easily back into what looks like very small rice-shaped grains. These ice granules are delightfully crunchy and are solid enough to hold up even the thickest and chunkiest of fruit syrups (called jarabe de frutas in Spanish). In the Philippines, this type of ice (made with the very same handheld grater: when was it invented? and by whom!) is called "kinaskas" (kaskas is the action of scraping or sanding). When I first came to this city after school in the early 90s, there were still Filipino restaurants that made halo-halo with "hielo na kinaskas". Today, almost all Southeast Asian restaurants in the US use either a powerful blender or an ice-crushing machine to make bubble tea and other types of iced beverages and desserts. I had a discussion about this yesterday with the owner of a Filipino restaurant who laughed and said "who's going to be stupid enough to spend all that energy scraping back and forth, back and forth?"
But "shaved ice" made with an ice-crushing machine is very different: "smithereens" of large pebbles and small shards, melting at uneven rates. Annieb tells me that up until the late 70s, one could find on Milwaukee around Division, up to a dozen vendors of aguas frescas vendors that also offered raspados shaved from large blocks of ice exposed to the air of the city. She speculated that they might have gone even before the first of the Chicago City Council's "elote wars". I imagine that this disappearance might also be a function of the creeping gentrification of the entire city through the 80s and the 90s (Tracy Letts evokes something of this disappearing Chicago in "Superior Donuts" which plays at Steppenwolf through August.) In this larger social context, the existence of those remaining raspados vendors in La Villita can be seen as a political quirk. It is an existence possible only because La Villita is its own world, a self-enclosed extension of Mexico in Chicago. La Villita (headed by alderman Ricardo Munoz) is also one of the few wards of the city where the long-running conflicts between storefront owners and ambulant street vendors have largely been resolved. Today, this existence is also an anachronism. It represents a forgotten taste and a forgotten history. It is "another way of doing" (one of "les arts de faire" Michel de Certeau writes about) that adds to the unseen, unheralded manyness that quietly enriches the life of a city. One of these days, this "difference" will also disappear without warning from our streets forever.
Of the three vendors of "raspados de frutas naturales" that I listed above, Senor Guadalupe's is without doubt the best. His cart is always parked outside La Chiquita Supermercado (26th at Central Park), where he has been selling his raspados for seven years. In fact, he pays not just the City of Chicago for a license to operate the cart, but pays the supermarket AS WELL for the privilege of parking outside (and possibly also for limited use of some facilities). Such a payment for operating in what is in effect public space seems at first like quite the racket, but in the context of the street vendors' struggle against the business community, the arrangement might actually represent the most expedient kind of political compromise.
Senor Guadalupe is from a little village outside Xalapa and his business continues the Veracruzan tradition of raspados, a tradition which finds its most famous expression in the "glorias y raspados" carts that ply the seafront promenade (the Malecon) in the port city of Veracruz. These beautifully-painted carts enjoy mythic status in the city (for a look, google-image "glorias y raspados"). The jarabes, or fruit syrups are prepared from scratch from fresh seasonal fruit such as guanabana, passionafruit/maracuya, mamey (a busy homemaker wishing to make jarabe-or aguas frescas-at home has the option of buying from pre-cut fruit sold in bags by a whole line of specialist vendors lining the sidewalk across the main gate of the Art-Moderne central market of the city). Senor Guadalupe has 12 different flavors (this is a typical number in a "glorias y raspados" cart). The blue "chicle" ("bubble gum") is clearly synthetic, but others like the tamarindo are made by boiling whole pods and then extracting the pulp. The recipes and exact process for making jarabe is always a closely-guarded secret, but I suspect that in this case, a combination of fresh fruit (whenever available) and high-quality frozen pulp is used. His wonderful jarabe de guayaba is so rich and thick (and studded with seeds) that it almost seems like a marmalade.
A common way of enjoying raspados is to order it topped with lechera, or condensed milk (unless you have chosen a flavor inappropriate for to addition, such as rompope). As with the grattachecches of Rome, which might be topped with small cubes of coconut and other fruits over the fruit syrup, the raspados of Veracruz may also be crowned with bananas (and strawberries) in which case they become "glorias". (The term "gloria" is strictly regional, specific to Veracruz; it is not offered in these carts since the word is not often understood by Mexicans from other regions). There are other derivative forms, such as the diablito (a raspado of a sourer fruit, mixed with chile powder, fresh-squeezed lime juice and salt) and the chamoyada (basically a diablito with the addition of chamoy sauce), but chamoy and chamoyada will be the subjects of a whole separate second part following this one.
My favorite of all of Senor Guadalupe's toppings is the coconut and guava. This specific combination is hardly a secret as it has become a neighborhood favorite! The usual crowd waits patiently and watches Senor Guadalupe as he goes through the slow process of driving the raspado back and forth, back and forth. He then ladles the coconut jarabe on first (little slivers of coconut in this jarabe coming to rest on top of the ice); then over it, the thick jam-like jarabe de guayaba. I would not ask for lechera with this one: it's rich enough already! Now you are ready to dig into your raspado while hanging out with the rest of the neighborhood, watching the world go by!
In Indochina, a different type of a wheel-turned screw-type mill is traditionally used for shaving ice; I have written appreciatively of these beautiful iron antiques in an old thread on Phnom Penh.
The word "jarabe" comes from Moorish Spain and reminds us that fruit syrups flavoring "snow" is enjoyed not only in the classical world (it is a favorite summertime treat in imperial Rome) but also in Persia and throughout the Arab world. In Granada, there is still a "camino de los Neveros" which was the ancient route taken by the porters of snows as they bring down ice/snow from the Sierra Nevada.
The best history of "ice" is still the one written by Elizabeth David ("Harvest of the Cold Months") although the book focuses mostly on thse modern forms that led to what we now call "ice cream". I have also found several stimulating passages on this subejct in Piero Camporesi's "Il brodo indiano". Elsewhere I have mentioned that the great Mexican poet Salvador Novo, who was also the official historian (cronista) of the city of Mexico reported the existence of "neverias" in that city in the 18th c. It is unclear to me whether these neverias served something like our grated ice, or forms of "ice cream" contemporary with early examples of these from late colonial America.
"Italian ice" is something else of course, but I do not doubt that "Italian ice" vendors in Chicago also offered "grated ice/raspados/grattachecche" once upon a time. This is a history that is largely unknown and forgotten. If anyone has any information on this subject, please let me know.
This post is a continuation of this earlier thread which has evolved into too large and too unwieldy a grab-bag:
On this post and the upcoming posts orelated topics, I continue some of the themes on that earlier thread.