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Jeges Ember/The Ice Man

Ice cutter on the Danube

Jeges Ember

Judit Vasmatics Paolini

In Budapest, prior to WWII and well into the mid-1950s, most Hungarians did not own a refrigerator.  The jeges ember, ice man, delivered ice regularly throughout Budapest, which aided people in keeping food cold and preventing it from spoiling.  People owned an ice box.  It was usually made of wood, and inside there was a metal compartment for keeping a block of ice.  There was a hole inside as well for the water to drain as the ice melted.  In addition, the ice box had a compartment where food could be placed and kept cold.  While many ice boxes may have had two compartments, some only had one where not only the ice was placed but the food as well.

During this period, Hungary was an especially poor nation and many people did not even own a true ice box!  Yet, some foods simply had to be kept cold in order to preserve them.  So what did people do who didn’t own and ice box?  Well, my friend Zsuzsa shared that her family usually did not need to keep meats cold for they usually cooked it upon purchase.  Her family usually bought ice in the summer when they needed to keep some desserts cold until they were served.  On such occasions, they would purchase a block of ice and simply placed it in a large basin, resting the desserts on top of the ice.

My aunt shared that her family usually purchased a half an ice block on Fridays.  Her mom usually went to the píac, the open air market, on Saturday mornings and would purchase meat.  The ice was placed in a small room.  It was somewhat like a pantry and had no windows; this small room was usually cooler than the rest of the house.  The ice was placed in this room along with the meats and the other things her family wanted to keep from spoiling.

Ice was delivered to people throughout Budapest by the jeges ember, the ice man, riding a horse drawn wagon.  The horses were large work horses for the wagon was loaded with heavy blocks of ice.  So, the jeges ember and the horses toiled greatly in their tiresome labor.  As the jeges rode throughout the streets of Budapest, he most likely called out, “JEGES!”  People wishing to buy ice greeted him and purchased the amount they desired.

Yes, when people in Budapest were without refrigerators ice was delivered by the ice man.  While it was important for ice to be delivered to private homes it was even more desired and needed in restaurants and butcher shops. 

My uncle shared with me that before Hungary had ice factories, some of the ice was cut from the frozen lake in Zugló (the XIV District in Budapest).  This practice was not unique to Hungary but ice blocks were cut from frozen lakes in other countries as well.

He recalls being a child when an ice factory was first built in Zugló.  He went there once with his dad, my grandfather, who actually worked at the ice factory on Szugló utca  (Szugló Street).  My uncle was only about 4 or 5 years old when my grandfather had taken him there.  He remembers seeing a big ice machine.  He also saw metal ice block forms. The shape of these containers was about 10 inches square and about 6 feet long. Six to ten containers formed a unit in which the ice was held.

Gone are the days of ice being delivered by the jeges ember. Keeping food cold and safe is no longer a challenge and takes no effort!  After all, we live in the 21st century and people in Budapest have refrigerators!

Judit Vasmatics Paolini is a member of the Southern Connecticut State University Alumni Association Board of Directors, former lecturer at Tunxis Community College, and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.  

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