Maraş dondurmasi: Secrets of a Magical Ice Cream Commodity

Curator's Note

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.


What a wild ice cream trick. At the end of your comment, you hint towards the economics of maraş dondurmasi, how each gesture adds "value" to the "commodity" of highly doctored ice cream. I think this might have an interesting relevance to commodity culture writ large, a type of reaching back towards what Benjamin (and assorted neopagans) might call "aura." The work of the body touching steel and cream, physically present in the moment of exchange, indeed the spectacle of exchange, gives this kind of event a weird intimacy, one, as you say, that is culturally specific. Turning towards the rise of increasing "boutique" goods (farmer's markets, popup restaurants, etsy, etc), this is also the kind of magic that makes those things sell, albeit without the physical presence of the person. Instead, we imagine the hands as they screenpress an ironic t-shirt or sharpen a locavore pencil. But I wonder of the occult magic of companies like Apple who decidedly do not market themselves as handbuilt, where to take apart one of their products to know is an act that destroys them. Here, the value-added component is precisely that we can't know the labor involved, that we imagine them appearing parthenogenically. Part of what makes the Turkish ice cream performance, as well, is that we don't know the secret, that the ice cream is extra thick with gum arabic and has a high melting point. In a way, we have the presence and aura competing with the secret of what we shouldn't know (if we are to be dazzled).

Ha! Bringing up Benjamin, in regards to the authenticity of hand-made ice cream, is perfectly appropriate for thinking about the intimacy of this theatrical exchange. The labor of the sleight-of-hand performance attracts and then refuses. It gives, takes away, and then gives more to increase the consumer's desire of the ice cream (that treat that we probably should not have, but want all the same). And, yes, all the while the dazzling, magical properties of maraş dondurmasi are being dangled before the buyer's eyes. Therefore, what is desired, unconsciously perhaps, is both the excess of the dessert (that delicious transgression of consumption) as well as the secret knowledge that might be revealed by tasting it. On one level, tasting maraş dondurmasi first-hand might be akin to eating frozen fruit from the forbidden tree. One learns more about its tactile qualities. At the same time, the knowledge gained from this first experience is most likely partial. Learning the names of the salep and mastic ingredients would require more research. I wonder if these ice cream chefs tend to guard or to give away their secret recipes? Either way, the desire to know more and to eat more most likely leads to another exchange of currency for ice cream.

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