Shave Ice And The Numinous


You take your Sacraments wherever you can find them!

Or perhaps more appropriately for what follows, you take your kensho moments – your bo-tree experiences, your timeless instants of Damascene insight – wherever you can find them. My latest such was my discovery of shave ice as a kind of Sacrament or moment of enlightenment – the terminology is not important – on Diane’s and my recent visit to my in-law family in her hometown of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Once again, as with my experience at my father-in-law’s memorial service back in 2008, I was reminded that the moment is all.  In fact, not only is the moment all, the moment is all there isall there could be.  Not to be excessively prescriptive, but … my intent in the following is to “pay it forward” by drawing on my experience to give you some friendly advice about how to discover the Universe in your own experience of shave ice, should you ever visit Hawaii.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Not everyone knows of or has tasted shave ice.  So some background first.  I know about shave ice because I have been married for 32 years to a Japanese-American woman who was born and raised on the Big Island. (Though we met in Wichita, KS, where it is 1500 miles to the beach … long story … .) Diane introduced me to shave ice, which I had never even heard of before, when I was in Honolulu for our wedding. I was instantly captivated. Love at first bite. Like virtually all experiences of the numinous, the experience of shave ice is the physically realized essence of utter simplicity:  finely shaved – not ground up or pulverized – ice, molded into a sparkling pure-white sphere, placed in a cup or paper cone, and covered with a flavoring syrup of your choice. You eat it with a small wooden spoon.  That’s it. That’s all. But from now on, the sacrament of shave ice really gets esoteric. So …

Matsumotos_shaved_ice_hale'iwa_oahu_hawaii_Photo_D_Ramey_Logano Piece of Advice #1:  Pay close attention to the ice as it is being prepared

Actual, real, authentic, honest-t’Gawd shave ice worthy of the name, i.e., shave ice with the emphasis on “shave”, is made from a cylindrical block of plain water ice placed on a rapidly rotating plate and secured by a vise-like affair that screws down from the top. Then, as the ice rotates, it is literally shaved by a hand-held implement much like a big razor the size of a windshield ice scraper.

As the ice is being shaved, pay meditative attention to the ice as it is sheared away from the rotating round block. This ice-shaving process is sublime to observe, so sublime that the visual experience cannot really be captured in words. A really skilled shave-ice maker can wield the “razor” with such consummate skill that the ribbons of ice – seemingly only a couple of water molecules thin – curl away from the rotating round block and drift to the bottom of the ice-rotating apparatus with a kind of gossamer grace.  There is something incorrigibly mystical about watching this. I repeat:  the ice “membrane” does not fall; it drifts, so delicate that mere air resistance keeps it from falling. I have a wealth of pleasant memories of sitting with Diane in the dusty, old-fashioned general store of Honomu Town by Akaka Falls on the Big Island, the dust motes drifting in the brilliant sunlight streaming through the windows, watching intently as a master shave-ice maker peeled off elegant ribbons of ice with her razor. Now watch as the shave-ice maker scoops up the ice ribbons from the bottom of the apparatus with something very like an ice-cream scoop and places the ice into a paper cone or cup, sculpting the mass of ice into a perfect, sparkling, white sphere as she does so.  Next step is to watch as she pours the flavoring syrup – I say “syrup,” but it is not very thick, more like water – over the white ice sphere. There is some skill involved in this:  pour too little, and there will be no taste; too much – remember, you’re in Hawaii, where it’s already hot -- and the ice will melt.

o Piece of Advice #2:  Eating with intentionality

Take time to see and admire the appearance of the shave-ice sphere.  This is easy to do if you ordered some flavor of bright color. For example, if you ordered strawberry, and if the shave-ice maker was quite skilled, your ice sphere will be nothing short of stunningly beautiful:  imagine a perfectly cut, flawless ruby roughly the size of a regulation-size baseball, with thousands of facets, each brilliantly reflecting the sunlight. But for sheer subtlety of color, by my taste, vanilla is hard to beat.  The ice will remain almost colorless … at first glance.  But glance again … and glance again … and glance again. Keep glancing. It takes time. But with a bit of practice, you will come to see in vanilla shave ice the coloration of a delicate, almost infinitely subtle pastel cream, so elusive that you see it best if you look at it out of the corner of your eye. There is nothing “plain” about “plain vanilla”.


Now, the next step is a multi-dimensional affair requiring serious discipline.  You are ready to eat the shave ice.  You were given – as all shave-ice customers are – a small wooden spoon and a tiny cocktail straw stuck into the shave-ice sphere.  The purpose of the latter I describe below.  For now, note only the following about the little wooden spoon:

2a: The little wooden shave-ice spoon, rather like the long staffs used in the Japanese martial art of kendo, is unassuming in its simplicity, but demanding in the discipline involved in its use. The paradox arises from the fact that using the spoon involves – obviously – skill in its employment while – much less obviously – great restraint in refraining from using it to control too much.  As you have been visually admiring your virginally intact sphere of shave ice, coruscating in the Hawaii sun, the outermost layer of ice has been partially melting and trickling down the outer surface of the sphere … and then, because it is still in contact with the ice underneath, it has been re-freezing. Chances are, this melting-and-refreezing process has been invisible to you. This means that, though you probably cannot see it, there is a more-or-less-rigid, couple-molecule-thick shell of water-flavor mixture now encasing the sphere.  So actually taking a bite of your shave ice therefore means that you have to use the little wooden spoon to penetrate the shell of the shave ice. (The obvious Freudian overtones of this action I leave implicit.) Penetrating this shell is not a matter of sheer force, in fact, least of all sheer force. Instead, it is a matter of calm. Impatience will only result in too vigorous a thrust and the shattering of the ice shell – together with a potentially catastrophic collapse of part of the sphere. Calmness of mind is all. Tranquility is all.

2b: Even then, you cannot control everything.  At some point, you will wield the little wooden spoon too vigorously or at an unfortunate angle … or something … and part of your ice-sphere will ignominiously collapse.  You cannot control it. You cannot even control how or when it happens. And to even attempt to control it is to renounce control. “The wind blows where it will, and you cannot tell where it is coming from or where it is going.” So to eat shave ice is to practice both halves of a paradoxical discipline:  (1) exerting control through calmness and a respectful reluctance to intervene while (2) at the same time and with equal equanimity of mind, renouncing control and allowing the shave-ice sphere to behave as it will, not necessarily as you prefer. Eating shave ice is a primal exercise in realizing that everything is not about you. For ultimately and in a manner not easily expressible in words, (1) and (2) are synonymous.  Heracleitus in the 6th century BCE unwittingly wrote the Prime Directive of all shave-ice aficionados:  “The way up and the way down are one and the same”.

o Piece of Advice #3:  Don’t forget the straw

Kapaa-Coconut-palm-trees-on-a-sandy-beach-in-hawaiiAs you chip away, oh-so-delicately and with an oh-so-poignant sense of the tragedy of avoiding tragedy, at your shave ice, part of the ice-sphere will always be slowly melting and running down to the bottom of the cone or cup.  Also, the melting will gradually transform the remaining shave ice in the container to a kind of semi-liquid / semi-solid slush.  This is to be savored, held on the tongue in reverent and rapt contemplation, not unlike a devout Catholic savoring the consecrated Host.  In a certain and very real sense, this slush, humble though it appears, is the sheer distilled essence of pure flavor, be that flavor strawberry or lilikoi or mango or vanilla. Again, this is an occasion for calm and equanimity, not haste.  Furthermore, all shave-ice stands I am aware of offer a hybrid flavor called “rainbow” comprising an ice-sphere covered with multiple stripes of flavors. (This is me, but I personally am a shave-ice “purist,” preferring the gustatory integrity of a single flavor, but – again! – this is me.) I mention “rainbow” shave ice separately because, in the case of rainbow shave ice, when the various flavors / colors melt and blend into a common slush, the resulting liquid in the bottom of the container looks … well ... “sludgey” and quite unappetizing.  But in a manner that could perhaps only be appreciated by a confirmed Aristotelian or perhaps a medieval Scholastic sacramental theologian, the surface appearance – the Thomist accidentia – of the melted rainbow shave ice belies a true near-Divine splendor of flavors – the essentia lurking behind and beneath the humble and unappetizing appearance. Eating all shave ice – but most especially eating melted rainbow shave ice – is a pungent lesson in never judging by appearance.

To paraphrase J. B. S. Haldane’s celebrated remark about the strangeness of the Universe “Shave ice is not only more splendid than we imagine, it is more splendid than we can imagine.”

James R. Cowles

Image credits:
Fumi's shave ice stand:  Kim ...  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Shave ice:  Carlo Carrasco ...  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Matsumoto's Shave Ice: D. Ramey Logan ... CC by SA 3.0
Two palm trees:  Kapaa Apartment Flats ... public domain

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