Sleight-of-hand performances by vendors of maraş dondurmasi —Turkish ice cream from the city of Maraş, in the region of Kahramanmaraş — have attained global fame over the past decade. Thousands of videos recording this local tradition of manipulating ice cream cones as well as the hands of their consumers have been uploaded to YouTube where they garner millions of views. How do we explain the magical allure of the maraş dondurmasi commodity as it appears, vanishes and transforms before our very eyes?
The bell rung by the dondurmasi man at the beginning of his performance announces the first appearance of the unusual ice cream he sells. Onlookers gather as he offers a simple cone and scoop to his customer. When the tourist reaches for them, however, he cannot grasp them. They stick, as if magnetized, to the end of the vendor’s serving wand, which he uses to playfully twirl the dessert out of reach. When the cone is finally in the customer’s hand, the ice cream is gone. Then, precisely when the ice cream reappears, chas! The cone has vanished. These sleights, the use of the wand, and the point / counter-point structure of his act are reminiscent of the classical magic routine “The Cups and Balls.”
What follows is a flurry of expert food manipulation that defies the laws of physics. The small scoop is exchanged for a gigantic one that is larger than the customer’s head. This is suspended above his newly returned cone yet it does not fall or drip. The surreal visual gag would indeed be impossible without salep (a flour made from orchids) or mastic (a tree resin), which are both used to make the dessert thicker, more chewable and more resistant to melting than other ice cream. These culturally specific ingredients are therefore central to the magic of this Turkish ice cream commodity.
Of equal importance, however, are the sleights, flourishes, understated acting and showmanship performed by the vendor manipulating these materials. He adds value, through the labor of his performance, to each layer of what becomes a five-scoop spectacle of a sundae. So much so that by the end of his performance, he has customers and onlookers eating, both literally and figuratively, out of the palm of his hand.