Philadelphia is famous for a lot of things. At the top of that list is, without a doubt, the Liberty Bell. Then there's.... um.... ah..... did I say the Liberty Bell already? Well, Philadelphia is also known for its indigenous foods, like cheese steaks, soft pretzels, hoagies and — the City of Brotherly Love's best kept secret — water ice (or as we enunciation-challenged Philadelphians pronounce it: "wooder ice").
This curiously-named hometown favorite, for those unfamiliar with the frozen concoction, falls somewhere between a sno-cone and a Slurpee. But not quite. It is usually eaten with a spoon, or as true Philadelphians know, a pretzel. Most of Philadelphia's numerous neighborhoods have a single-location vendor that sells water ice to its loyal citizens. Each neighborhood is fiercely proud, even snobbishly partial, to its own purveyor of the icy summer treat. While water ice (sometimes called "Italian ice," but never in Philadelphia) dates back to the nineteenth century, Bob Tumolo, a former firefighter opened up a small water ice stand called "Rita's" (named after his wife) in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem in the summer of 1984. Soon, his product's popularity allowed him to open three more locations and, eventually, he began franchising his business. Today, Bob's vision boasts over 600 locations, spreading the one-time Philadelphia exclusive to a nationwide audience. Despite its current corporate status, Rita's is still pretty popular among local residents.
My wife numbers herself among those in Rita's customer base. A longtime water ice aficionado (and purist), she will only order "chocolate" when given the choices available on Rita's extensive menu, in spite of such tempting flavors as "tangerine," "kiwi strawberry" and "cotton candy." She subscribes to Rita's "special offers" via their smartphone app and receives coupons and discounts throughout the summer months. Recently, Mrs. P was emailed a coupon for a free regular-size water ice in celebration of... well, something like the first day of spring or the end of winter of some other made-up occasion. Bottom line: free water ice awaited.
We drove over to our neighborhood Rita's and I hopped out of the car with the printed coupon in my hand. I descended the few steps to the line of order windows and a smiling young lady appeared in one of the open frames.
"Hi!," she welcomed, "Can I help you?" Friendly enough. I presented my coupon and said, "I'd like a regular size chocolate with a lid on the cup, please." The coupon itself was short on words, just the necessary verbiage to instruct the employee that this piece of paper was to be exchanged for a regular-size water ice in a flavor of the customer's choosing. As a matter of fact, the phrase "Free Regular Ice" were the largest words on the thing, dwarfing the remaining line — "in the available flavor of your choice" — by several dozen point sizes. The counter girl read the coupon, smiled again and asked, "What size? Regular or large?"
I slowly replied, "Regular, please." I gestured towards the coupon in her hand. "I believe the coupon is good for a regular size." She looked at the coupon in her hand. "Oh. Right." She wandered off to the large freezer that houses the supply of water ice to fill my simple order.
Soon, she returned. She placed the chocolate ice-filled cup on the counter, its contents held neatly in place with a plastic lid snapped tightly to the waxed paper rim. "Would you like a lid?," the young lady asked. I looked at the lid firmly attached to the cup. She looked at the lid firmly attached to the cup. "Oh. Right.," she said, with no inflection, "I mean would you like a spoon?"
"No thank you." I said. I grabbed the frozen cup and headed for the car.
A week or so later, Mrs. P got another coupon for a free regular-sized water ice, this time for her birthday. We followed the exact same routine. When we arrived at Rita's, the same counter girl was waiting.
"Hi!," she welcomed, "Can I help you?" I presented my coupon and said, "I'd like a regular size chocolate with a lid on the cup, please." Just as she had asked before, she asked again: "What size? Regular or large?" I replied, just like I did before: "Regular, please." I gestured towards the coupon that I had just handed to her. "I believe the coupon is good for a regular size." She looked at the coupon, this one as simply worded as the previous one. "Oh. Right." She wandered off to fill my order. When she returned, the cup displayed a large, rounded mound of chocolate water ice rising nearly a full inch above the rim. The counter girl jammed a long, plastic spoon into the surface of the ice, sinking it deep into its cold center. The chances of getting my requested lid on this thing were slim. I didn't even bother to ask. "Would you like a spoon?," she asked before interrupting herself with an "oh" when it registered in her brain that she had already provided a spoon. She offered a monotone "Thank you" and disappeared back into the employee work area.
When I returned to the car, my wife was obviously about to ask about the lid. I stopped her with a stream of disgusted muttering under my breath. "No lid!," I spat, "A spoon that I didn't ask for, but no lid." Mrs. P laughed, shrugged her shoulders and took a big lick of water ice.
I guess that's the important part.