Over the decade after its opening the Insular Ice Plant, with its iconic earthquake proof smokestack, operated at a loss. Despite being able to churn out 100 tonnes of ice a day it could only give it to goverment projects, employees and the military because it was forbidden from selling ice to the general public cheaper than private industry, which meant Fabrica de Hielo the only other game in town and a half a centavo a kilo less than the ice plant was required to sell it for.
One is entitled to speculate that profit-savvy sellers of shaved ice confections in the opening decade of the 20th century were buying from Fabrica de Hielo rather than the government ice plant. That may also have limited the spread of halo-halo and similar deserts.
The fact that ice cream and sorbet vendors had to be corralled near the plant during the 1901-1902 typhoid outbreak suggests that they had other sources for the cold stuff.
The Insular Ice Plant and Cold Storage continued to lose business as late as 1908, when it was suggested that the government should purchase Fabrica de Hielo but the idea did not prosper.
It did, however, add a new cry to the streets of Manila, or at least those where American administrators had their homes and government offices: ice was delivered by an insulated wagon, its arrival announced by the driver’s call of “Hielo, hielo!“.
Houseboys would help wrangle the 8 inch by 4 foot blocks into the house and put them into the ice box along with distilled water.
Ice made with distilled water and distilled water itself should have been free of contamination yet people working in government offices went down with dysentery in large numbers.
Investigation showed that the ice men were dragging ice across the road and contaminating it. Even today one can see ice deliveries made the same way to carinderias.
In fact, the spread of ice and ice cream was accompanied by typhoid and cholera. The nadir being the 1921 Manila Carnival and the sale of another ice-based treat – ice drops made by a Japanese business.
It is unclear how the Insular plant solved its economic problems but it may be connected with the bankruptcy of a brewery in Hong Kong.
In 1908, as the Insular plant was bemoaning its finances a group of British and Americans set up the Oriental Brewery.
By mid 1913 the brewery was bankrupt and sold to a syndicate headed by Antonio Barretto, cousin of Enriques Barretto who founded the San Miguel brewery and opened for business on Solano Street.
In 1919 Oriental Brewery was acquired by San Miguel and used to produced Royal soft drinks.
Fabrica de Hielo was by now in a bad state, had not invested in moderinsation. In 1924, San Miguel acquired the company.
A Filipino middle class boomed with relatively high salaries – Filipino engineers were paid the same as their American counterparts – and garapinyeras appeared in middle-class homes, especially those entitled to ice from the insular plant.
By the 1930s domestic refrigerators were available in the Philippines and eventually became cheap enough for all but the poorest families to have one humming away in the corner.
In the meantime, shaved ice desserts had escaped the brothels of Sampaloc and become a familiar part of an afternoon for the chattering classes. A Spanish novel by Guillermo Gómez Windham published in 1924 in Iloilo describes lunching in a Chinese noodle house, a snack of mongo con hielo at a Japanese sorbeteria topped off by a visit to a cinema.
Even earlier, a trip to the cinema and a glass of mongo con hielo had become a ‘thing’. The script of a 1918 performance by the Grand Zarazuela Company, called Cinematografo has a scene set outside a cinema featuring a store selling mongo con hielo.
Milk is an important part of this story and for the most part of the first two decades of the American occupation it was dangerous stuff especially for infants. It was frequently diluted with contaminated well-water and adulterated with rice flour and coconut oil. Bacteria loves milk and much of it contained hundreds of times the number considered remotely safe.
About 3,800 litres of carabao milk were sent to Manila every day, at least part of which was from farmers making a little extra cash by selling milk from a lactating animal that had just calved.
Inevitably, milk from cows was bought by the rich. At a time when the average daily wage was 1 peso, a liter of safe, sterilised cow’s milk cost a dollar.
Less common but also in the diets of the rich, was goat milk. However, the type of goat was a poor milk producer and attempts to cross-breed with more productive goats from overseas.
The health authorities made these observations in a 1905 report:
Few dairies had sterilising equipment and were so far distant that enforcing safety standards was difficult.
By 1911 the only sterilising plant was at Gota de Leche, set up in 1906 to aid the feeding of infants. Statistics in Manila showed that mortality rates for children were ten times higher for those not fed on sterilised milk. Health authorities distributed advice on home sterilisation using a method you, too, can try at home.
The only alternative was tinned condensed milk, available since the 1850s, and evaporated milk introduced in the 1890s. Both imports were dominated by British trading houses. Until, that is, ‘fresh milk’ began to be imported in 1904. In fact, it was sterilised milk in tins.
Powdered milk did not emerge in the Philippines until the 1920s and 1930s, although available elsewhere for a century. High levels of polluted water made its widespread use impractical.
Street-vended ice cream and ice desserts were identified as vectors of typhoid, cholera and dysentry. A vendor who was caught short had no option but to use a public midden – a shack with wooden pails inside and usually unsanitary, smelly and full of flies.
Little wonder that as much as 45 per cent of ice cream on the streets was found unsuitable for human consumption due to fecal contamination.
What was in the ice cream of the time seems to have varied widely. In 1913 two steps were taken: first from 1 July only products made with milk and sugar, approved flavours and, where appropriate, nuts, could be called ice cream or mantecado. No egg yolks, starch or gelatine were allowed. Anything that did not match the standard could be called frozen sweet, helado or sorbetes.
Which means much of the ice cream sold in shops today isn’t ice cream.
What we don’t actually know is the recipe for the ice-cream sold by vendors. Filipino chef Christian Noel Montales Lanuzo who works in Boracay recalls a mixture of coconut milk, cassava flour and condensed milk was used as the main ingredients flavored artificially or naturally with fruits. As of now, we really don’t know.
It is most likely the vendors worked on a boundary system, like taxi-drivers in Manila, renting the equipment and buying the contents, not making any profit until enough had been sold to cover those expenses.
Given the high levels of contamination in fresh milk health authorities promoted the use of tinned milk and came up with several formulas, which you can try making at home.
A decade later, halo-halo, mongo con hielo and maiz con hielo appear together in health reports for the first time, but the news was not good.
A major typhoid investigation into s devastating epidemic in 1922 tells us a lot about the connection between ice desserts, Japan, and how a carnival became a deadly event.