Last week, I attended a conference about the Arctic in Hawaii. It might seem completely out of place, if not totally out of touch, to talk about a faraway, frozen place on a tropical island. But there are a surprising number of linkages between the Hawaiian islands and the Arctic, and they start with ice. The clear, cold solid forms the basis for one of the most famous desserts in the Pacific, “shave ice,” and was once one of the most lucrative exports from north to south.
After swimming in the warm and prismatic waters off Lanikai Beach on Oahu’s windward shore, I craved nothing more than an ice cold drink. This wouldn’t be hard to find. Oahu is an island where every town has shops selling smoothies, ice cream, soda, and shave ice. This last dessert is the precursor to the snow cone’s, dessert of choice of every kid at every state fair on the mainland. When President Obama would come home to Hawaii during his vacations, he would indulge in shave ice at his favorite shop, not too far from Lanikai Beach.
Although frozen desserts on Hawaii are basically ubiquitous, their prevalence on this remote chain of jungle-covered volcanoes in the Pacific is pretty much just as bizarre as an Arctic conference taking place in Hawaii. Hi‘ilei Julia Hobart, who researches Indigenous peoples and food studies at Northwestern University, has written about the history of ice as a commodity in Hawaii. In a recent paper in Food, Culture & Society, she explains that American and European settlers’ taste for chilled drinks encouraged the creation of an “infrastructure of coldness” in Hawaii. Features like air conditioning and refrigeration contrast with the “infrastructure of warmth” that can be found in Arctic communities, from over-ground heating pipes in permafrost-laden Russia to geothermally heated sidewalks in Iceland, which melt the snow on top of them.
In nineteenth-century Hawaii, colonial energies were directed at keeping things cold. Starting in the 1850s, various companies began exporting ice to the booming port city of Honolulu. Newspaper advertisements, as Hobart describes, extolled the virtues of “a quantity of that greatest of luxuries in a tropical climate — ice.” In 1854, anticipating the start of a regular ice trade, local ship dealers Swan & Clifford built an ice house. The first delivery of ice to Hawaii, comprising some 500 tons, hailed from Sitka, Alaska.
At the time, Sitka was the hub of the Russian-American Company. The state-sponsored joint-stock company was chartered by Tsar Paul I in 1799 to carry out colonization efforts in Alaska, which was then Russian America, by means of exporting natural resources like furs, fish, and ice, and establishing settlements. The most important of those settlements was Sitka, which was established in 1799 by a Russian trader named Alexander Andreyevich Baranov. He named it Novo-Arkhangelsk (New Archangel), after his hometown, which was an important port city in the Russian Arctic on the White Sea.
Sitka was set up on land inhabited by the Tlingit people for thousands of years. In fact, the Tlingit were employed to stack the ice for shipment to faraway places like California and Hawaii. Thus, it is very possible that the first ice which arrived in Hawaii – ice from a town in Alaska named after a Russian city in the Arctic – was stacked and put into the ship by Alaska Natives.
After his successes in Alaska, Baranov sought to expand Russian America to Hawaii. In 1815, he sent a representative to the islands to establish a way station for Russian ships sailing from Alaska to China with lucrative furs. However, neither the Russian government nor navy supported Baranov’s aspirations, and Baranov’s delegate was forced to leave Hawaii, with the Russian trading posts abandoned.
The 1850s saw a boom in trade between Alaska and Hawaii. Besides ice, Alaskan wood products, timber, fish, and some Russian manufactured goods were exported south in exchange for Hawaiian sugar, molasses, and salt, according to anthropologist Lydia Black. Many Alaskan goods were traded to San Francisco, too. The burgeoning City by the Bay was in the throes of the gold rush and had a big appetite for ice. With the commodity going for $75 a ton, ice became the most profitable trade along that route.
While ice kept relatively well in the year-round cool and foggy climate of San Francisco, it did not hold up in Hawaii’s hothouse climate. Despite early excitement around promises of regular importation of ice, consistent deliveries from Alaska never really took off. It was hard to make a profit on a commodity that melted rapidly in the heat. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, ice machines came to take the place of empty ice houses.
The lack of success of ice imports in Hawaii mirrored another, more calamitous failure on the islands that originated in the Arctic: Captain Cook’s third voyage, from 1776-1780. The British explorer’s fateful sailing to the Hawaiian archipelago originated in the Alaskan Arctic. At the northernmost point of their three-year voyage – a little over 70 degrees north, just west of modern-day Wainwright, Alaska – on August 18, 1778, HMS Resolution encountered the edge of the Arctic sea ice. Captain Cook wrote in his journal, “We were, at this time, close to the edge of the ice, which was as compact as a wall; and seemed to be ten or twelve feet high at least. But, farther North, it appeared much higher. Its surface was extremely rugged; and here and there, we saw upon it, pools of water.”
Unable to penetrate any farther north and failing to have found a passage between Europe and Asia, Cook and his crew turned south. Here in the Arctic, even in summer, ice was hardly the “greatest of luxuries” as it was in Hawaii. Seeking warmth and relief from horrible seas, Cook headed towards the Pacific via the Bering Strait. The ship stopped in the Aleutian Islands along the way, where Cook infamously forced his crew to eat walrus meat, which the crew thought was disgusting and tasted like “train oil.”
Alaska did not let them leave easily. “Mountainous seas,” in the words of British historian Frank McLynn, tormented the sailors, and it would be another 31 days before they would sight the lush island of Maui. Of course, any vision of relief from the ice would be a mirage. It would be on these ice-free islands that Cook would meet his ignominious fate, bonding Hawaii and the Arctic in a morbid and unforeseen way.
Today, if you ever have the chance to enjoy a shave ice in Hawaii, remember how precious ice used to be before ice machines were invented. It was so dear that it was shipped thousands of miles across the sea from Alaska, where it was stacked into piles by indigenous peoples for whom ice was part of the fabric of their landscape – not something that was hacked up and shipped out thousands of miles across the sea, only for it to melt away.
So how did shave ice come to be one of Hawaii’s most popular desserts?
Even after ice machines were introduced to Hawaii, it took some time for the flaky indulgence to be introduced to the islands. While the dessert has many origins, the Hawaiian version traces its roots to Japan, where it was first created over a thousand years ago during the Heian period (794-1195) using ice brought down from the mountains. Shave ice grew really popular after it burst onto the scene in the port city of Yokohama in 1869. Japanese immigrants to Hawaii in the 20th century reputedly used family heirloom swords to slice blocks of ice into the snowy, soft dessert that is today synonymous with island refreshment. The shop Obama frequents is called “Island Snow Hawaii” – bringing the tropics and the weather of the Arctic together under one banner. I guess the main difference now between ice in Hawaii and ice in the Arctic is that shave ice is rainbow-colored, while Arctic ice is clear, white, blue, or green.
Sidebar: Dealing with ice still has its archaic moments, as seen in this video of an ice crushing machine I took a few years ago at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.