Editor’s note: The following is the — frankly, wrong — take from one Eater writer. There was internal disagreement on the staff, but we decided to publish to promote dialogue and open communication.
Every once in a while, a food opinion will proliferate so fast and quietly that one day you look around and it’s everywhere. Suddenly, everyone is making oatmeal like oats are going extinct, or putting matcha in everything, or acting like they always knew what chile crisp was even though they are white. Regardless of how one may personally feel about each flavor (for me, chile crisp is great, while oatmeal is the devil), it’s disorienting every time. When did everyone start talking about this? How did this opinion crystalize? And why did nobody consult me?
This is how I feel about pellet ice.
Over the past few years, and especially within the past year, a fanaticism has grown around pellet ice, also known as nugget ice or “Sonic ice,” as it’s the main kind of ice used by Sonic Drive-In. Pellet ice is pinky-nail sized ice made from pressed ice flakes; it absorbs beverages quickly and melts faster. It looks like little tater tots floating in your drink. And this, I guess, is what people want.
It turns out that the pellet ice craze didn’t come on like an unexpected comet, as I imagined it, but in fact has been incubating — like an alien virus — for years. In 2016, Food52 published a recipe for Sonic ice, with author Amanda Sims saying it was one of the main reasons she ever went to Sonic. In 2018, food writer and former Eater editor Paula Forbes wrote about the public devotion to pellet ice, with fans (including actor Matthew McConaughey) seeking out specialty ice-makers to have it at home. Forbes called it “the best ice,” interviewing one bartender who extolled its “porous and chewable” nature. On The Kitchn, Hali Bey Ramdene wrote that it’s the “best thing” on Sonic’s menu, and Sonic even began selling 10-lb bags of ice because of demand. Even GE advertises its Opal Nugget Ice Maker, which it began making in 2015, with the slogan “The Good Ice.”
Earlier this year, Helen Rosner, also a former Eater editor, further elaborated on the widespread love for pellet ice in the New Yorker. She describes how its flakes evoke a “well-laminated pastry,” and the sound of it softly stirred in a drink is, unlike the harsh clunking of cubed ice, is “like someone shaking an afuche-cabasa in the apartment next door.” No one has ever described ice so lovingly, and when she said “the good ice is pellet ice, and to know it is to need it,” I wanted to believe her.
But I cannot.
I remain completely baffled as to how pellet ice has gotten this reputation, given the actual experience of having it served to me in drinks. Those who love it argue that, thermodynamically, pellet ice melts slower than cubed ice. But, all apologies to Planck, every time I order a cocktail served over pellet ice, it arrives tasting immediately watered down. Pellet ice fills a glass in a way that makes me suspicious, like there’s too little drink in there for what I paid for — one sip and already I’m almost done. Every drink through the straw seems like half air, which never allows me to taste the actual liquid I wanted to drink without tasteless filler. This is an objectively awful experience, and I have been quietly seething every time I come across some post about how they will search far and wide to fill their drinks with bite-sized freezer burn. Like, just get a slushee!!! Am I so out of touch? No, it is the pellet ice fanatics who must be wrong.
In my search for an explanation, I reread the essays and Instagram posts. I read the tweets telling me how wrong I am. The common denominator seems to be that for the fans, pellet ice is not for keeping one’s drink cold (hm), but for chomping. Rosner says it has a “yielding texture perfect for chewing.” Forbes writes that “the goal is to have some ice left over once you’ve finished your drink for, um, snacking.” In selling folks on its at-home ice maker, GE says traditional cube ice “is made from hard frozen cubes which are hard to chew and don’t retain flavors.” Ramdene even admits that “it melts quickly, and it really takes up a ton of space in the glass, but I just love the experience of taking a sip of a drink and having a bunch of itty-bitty glaciers to crunch on.” Here I was, thinking the purpose of ice was to optimize the drinking experience; I judged pellet ice by those metrics, and assuming everyone else was too. How wrong of me. You all are just trying to eat ice with a spoon.
People seem to struggle with accepting that someone else feels differently — especially about food — than they do. I’m aware of this in myself and in others. The idea of crunching down on a piece of ice seems deeply uncomfortable to me, and I could not fathom a world in which the desire to chew ice was someone’s primary motivation in making a bev. But as I write, I’m eating my morning cottage cheese, a meal my spouse can’t even watch me eat because they think it’s so disgusting. It’s good to be reminded that your point of view is yours alone, and that humans have the capacity to live in so many ways.
That being said, pellet ice sucks.