• U.S.

Ice Cream: They All Scream for It

24 minute read
John Skow

Fresh fruit and fantasy now turn butterfat into delicious sin

What you must understand at the outset is that Ben & Jerry’s, in Burlington, Vt., makes the best ice cream in the world.

That Mayfield’s, in Athens, Tenn., is the world’s best ice cream. That the absolute best ice cream in the universe, without argument (although the partisans who urge these passionate and contradictory views are happy to argue all night), is stirred and cranked and lovingly scooped by Lickety Split in Denver, by Bob’s Famous in Washington, D.C., or by Gelato in San Francisco. Nonsense, says a newcomer to the discussion, which started as a modest watercooler filibuster and has quickly become an anarchic mob scene. If you believe such claims it is because—you poor, butter-fat-starved, crushed-strawberry-and fresh-peach-and Oreo-mint-deficient ignoramous—you have never laid tongue to a rich, chewy, almost dripping sugar-cone full of sinfully delightful ice cream made by the enchanted trolls of Robert’s in Southampton, N.Y.

Never mind gin and tonic —well, perhaps a short one —and forget the return of baseball’s prodigal sons. We are dealing here with primal matters, with a current in the national psyche far deeper and more powerful than our tropism toward corn on the cob and Japanese cars. Ice cream is our drug of choice, and butterfat—the word itself is dizzyingly lovely and globulous—is the occasion of our guiltiest and most delicious sin. Fourteen percent butterfat. Eighteen percent. Four hundred percent butterfat, some dreamer with glazed-over eyes says and actually seems to believe. The great underground truth of our society—a republic in which three-fourths of the males and every female over the age of nine are chained to the Scarsdale Diet, the Beverly Hills Diet, or perhaps by now a starvation routine concocted in some other overfed suburb whose inhabitants are rumored to be of ectoplasmic skinniness—is that more and more of us are now strung out on heavy cream, egg yolks, pure vanilla and—yes, oh yes—hot fudge topping with whipped cream, jimmies and walnuts.

On a rainy Saturday night in darkest Somerville, Mass.—a time and place suitable for filming the maiden-munching scene of a monster flick—a long line of wet people huddle under the blue-and-white awnings of Steve’s. Another 50 sodden citizens wait inside. They are lining up to buy ice cream—carob, perhaps, or banana coffee, since a temporary shortage of fine cinnamon has made the obvious first choice of chocolate-cinnamon-raisin unavailable—at a cost of $1.60 for a large scoop with one mix-in, or $2 for a large scoop with three mix-ins. A mix-in, for those who have not yet followed aerobic eating into its postmodern era, may be butterscotch chips and walnuts, pulverized Reese’s peanut butter cups, crushed Oreos, M & Ms or—in some temples of asceticism—granola. Mix-ins are not simply dumped on top of a scoop of ice cream as toppings would be in a conventional sundae; they are kneaded expertly into the very flesh of the scoop—be still, my beating heart!—while the tongue and gullet and gizzard of the sufferer who has waited in line for 45 minutes send out urgent warnings of collapse.

This is the very Steve’s where the legendary Steve Herrell, a Boston cab driver and sometime high school teacher, popularized the whole mind-and-body-expanding idea of mix-ins when he founded the place back in 1973. History was made, served and spooned here. Herrell sold his shop to the brothers Joey and Nino Crugnale in 1977 because he wanted to go west; he got as far as Northampton, where he now operates Steve Herrell’s Ice Cream. Joey Crugnale, who shyly describes his outrageously heavy and rich ice cream as “the best,” keeps a player piano jingling away in the corner and sometimes has his store manager cheer up the pilgrims standing in his lines by holding trivia quizzes (sample: “Who was the only actor to win two Academy Awards in a row, and what were the movies?” Answer: Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous [1937] and Boys Town [1938]). This is known in the restaurant trade as ambience.

Still, aren’t the prices just a trifle extortionate? Are we really talking about $2 for just one scoop and some candy crumbs? Has everybody gone crazy?

Students of the ridiculous will answer these questions in different ways. What is undeniably true is that serious eaters, especially in college towns and in those East Coast and West Coast cities whose inhabitants like to think of themselves as civilized, no longer have the slightest tolerance for ice cream ordinaire. An unpresumptuous little chocolate ripple does not interest them; they want presumption. And to say that they are willing to pay ruinous prices for it—$7 a quart for hand-packed ice cream is not unheard of—is to understate the case. They demand the right to pay these prices.

Passion of this intensity translates to steady sales for the ice-cream industry ($1.6 billion in 1979) when sales of all kinds of desserts have dropped off by 40% over the past decade and a half. Ice-cream sales in the U.S. hit a peak in 1975 and since then have declined slightly (from 15.69 qt. per capita last year to 14.62 qt.), but sales of the most expensive and best-tasting brands have been increasing by about 17% a year and now command 11% of the market. Americans produced 829,798,000 gal. of ice cream in all grades last year, and we eat more of it than anybody else, with Australians and New Zealanders spooning their way across the finish line a distant second and third. If all that tonnage is hard to get the teeth into, conceptually, the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers is happy to calculate that it would provide ten single-scoop cones for every human being on earth, an idea that might make the MX missile unnecessary—at least until the chocolate chip ran out.

One of the real oddities of the ice cream industry is that business firms ranging in size from megacorp down to mom and pop can all do very well. No company can be said to dominate; Dart & Kraft, which makes Sealtest and Breyers ice cream, is in first place with sales of $337.3 million in 1979, but its market share is only 12.2%. Borden, with $257.8 million in sales and a 9.3% market share, comes second; Lever Bros., which owns Good Humor, is in seventh place with $62.9 million in sales and a 2.3% market share; and Howard Johnson is ninth with $48.6 million in sales and a 1.7% slice of the ice-cream pie. At the other end of the range, often with thoughts of rising fast, is the beefy red arm offering a just-scooped cone to a customer through a candy-store window. Sometimes the arm can write some impressive profit figures. The Baskin-Robbins chain (whose promotion of bubble-gum ice cream means that discriminating adult coneheads write off its 2,600 shops as hangouts for eleven-year-olds) has oases in Kuwait and Qatar. But Baskin-Robbins, now owned by a European-based conglomerate, started out in California in the 1940s as a two-man operation, with Brothers-in-Law Irv Robbins and Burt Baskin scooping furiously. Another pioneer scooper is Earl Swensen, 69, who still owns his original San Francisco ice-cream parlor. Ten years ago, he sold the chain it gave birth to, however, and Swensen’s, which has a shop in the Singapore airport, among many other places, recently opened its 300th franchise.

People are lining up with their money in their hands, but there is a question to be asked about the status-label ice-cream craze. Are people buying the alligator or the shirt? Is the good stuff really that good? “If you think it is, it is,” says Glenn Witte, a spokesman for the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers.

One pop-psychology mix-in ladled freely on the expensive-ice-cream phenomenon proposes that when a meal in a good restaurant costs what a used car once did, and when a new car costs what a house once did, a $2 cone is the only way most of us have to gratify our wistful yearning for luxury. Cheap at the price.

A variant entrail-reading suggests that when people break faith with their diets, as they always do sooner or later, they want to do it with a strumpet certifiably and wickedly luxurious. Actually, according to a recent Consumer Reports calculation, a half-cup serving of superpremium vanilla ice cream contains only 267 calories, compared with 363 for a 5-oz. piece of homemade apple pie. A 154-lb. person, nutritionists say, can burn off half a dish in 21.2 min. of moderate skiing, 87.6 min. of golfing or painting furniture, or 188.6 min. of lying down and daydreaming. The difficulty, of course, lies with those of us for whom half a cup of ice cream is a trifling preamble to an evening of empty-the-carton.

What can be determined for sure is that cheap ice cream is half air. It would be airier still if Government regulations allowed it. Expensive ice cream is less than 30% air. Not only is superpremium made with the best cream, fresh fruit, chocolate and liqueurs (a fine French vanilla assays out at 3% egg yolks, twice the minimum specified by the U.S. Government for ice cream that is labeled French), but it contains a great deal more of these ingredients. A gallon of asylum-grade supermarket chocolate ripple weighs about 4½ lbs., and a gallon of Ben & Jerry’s ineffable Heath bar or knee-weakening black raspberry weighs 6½ lbs. Haagen-Dazs rum raisin, flavored with fresh-plucked umlauts, weighs about 8 lbs. Not much air.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Vreenfield, high school friends from Long Island, started Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington four years ago. Now, at age 30, they tend strongly toward plumpness and prosperity. In place of the traditional seven-year-old boy who must be bribed with dasher-licking rights before he will turn the crank of the hand freezer, they use a reduction gear to make the paddles of the freezer in their wholesale plant turn slowly enough. At their ice-cream parlor, a rowdily redecorated former gas station, an elderly White Mountain Freezer Co. rock-salt-and-ice contraption chunks away serenely in a position of honor. It is powered by a senile electric motor but otherwise, wooden tub and all, it is a 5-gal. enlargement of the traditional hand-turned ecstasy machine. This freezer, which somewhat surprisingly produces enough ice cream for the 1,600 customers who crowd in on a good day, does its magic under the attentive view of the area’s kids. If Manager Don Miller is in a good mood, those who are quick on their feet get to lick the dasher that he pulls out when a batch is finished. The rest of the semisolid mass then disappears for a day; it is flash-frozen at —10° F so that large ice crystals do not form, and then it is tempered for a few hours in a freezer 20° warmer. These days Ben and Jerry keep their machine going without letup, but often in the first months of their proprietorship, they were forced to hang up the dreaded international no-more-ice-cream sign: a red circle containing an ice-cream cone with a slash through it.

Anyone who doubts that superpremium buyers are getting more than ice cream should consider the Häagen-Dazs success. Salty old Tom Carvel, head of the 47-year-old, 800-store Carvel chain, is derisive: “All they did was reduce the air pump and quadruple the price, and the fools buy it.” He says the nation’s only real superpremium is his own, which is made fresh daily in his stores. Almost everyone else is impressed, and with reason. Reuben Mattus, who is 68 and white-whiskered now, helped his widowed mother Leah sell her lemon ices in the South Bronx when he was a small boy, and he has continued to follow the ice-cream business. Competition from big manufacturers forced him up the quality ladder. He raised his butterfat content to 12%, from the customary U.S.-regulated minimum of 10% for vanilla, and was successful for a while. The opposition caught on and, he says, began to undercut him with illegal discounts and credit deals. So he decided to go where the chains could not follow, to 16% butterfat and, never mind the cost, the very best ingredients. The new ice cream had no stabilizers to minimize the effects of melting during handling, no preservatives, no powdered milk, no corn syrup.

His masterstroke, however, was to come up with a made-up jumble of supposedly Danish syllables that proved to be astonishingly catchy. Häagen-Dazs, as he called his new ice cream in 1960, is meaningless in Danish, and, as Mattus observes somewhat impishly, the Danish language does not even use the umlaut, but he “thought it gave more pizazz.” In fact, Mattus had no connection with Denmark; his own family had emigrated from Poland. But on the tops of his ice-cream cartons he printed a map of Scandinavia, with a star marking Copenhagen and an arrow swooping toward the star. Unwary buyers of this costly marvel (which sells now for $1.65 a pint and up) could have been forgiven for assuming that they were getting Prince Hamlet’s own recipe from the court at Elsinore.

Last year Häagen-Dazs sold 40 million pt.—its largest retail size—made in a new, computerized plant in Woodbridge, N.J., and this year’s sales are running about 50% better. The firm has franchised 89 “scoop shops”—as hand-dip ice-cream parlors are called in the trade—and expects to open 19 more across the country by the end of the summer.

This comic opera of marketing has a sequel. In early 1980 two more superpremium ice creams with throat-curdling foreign names hit the eastern market. Frusen Glädjé actually means “frozen delight” in Swedish (with an un-Swedish accent over the final e added for class), and the American owners made the unusual move of incorporating their company in Sweden. Their nectar is manufactured in Utica. Mattus took the non-Swedes to court for what amounted to infringement of balderdash, and his case was thrown out. The other newcomer is Alpen Zauber (German for “alpine magic”), a Brooklyn outfit that claims to be “inspired by the Swiss commitment to excellence … Its select natural ingredients are a heritage of the lush valleys of farm lands where the finest dairy products are still made by hand.” Alpen Zauber has brought legal action against Häagen-Dazs for threatening to withhold its ice cream from distributors who sold Alpen Zauber. Mattus says that he is not worried by the other phony foreigners: they may eventually learn to play the violin, he says, but that will not enable them to compete with a virtuoso.

Nor does Häagen-Dazs compete in a threatening way with Breyers, who claims that its Philadelphia plant produces more fine ice cream, with no preservatives, no artificial flavors and no stabilizers, than any other creamery in the country. Breyers is the top-of-the-line ice cream made by Dart & Kraft. Robert Zogby, a vice president of the company, boasted recently that “last week in New York City alone we sold more Breyers than Häagen-Dazs sold across the country in a year.”

Zogby talked freely about the problems of using natural flavors. Real vanilla beans add flecks to the mix, and some customers used to the cheaper artificial flavor vanillin complain of dirty ice cream. Real mint flavor is as clear as gin, not green. A blend of pumpkin and squash tastes more like pumpkin than pumpkin alone does, but squash ice cream sounds dreadful, so the firm’s flavorers had to work harder and stick with pumpkin. Most cherry ice cream contains bright red bits of cherries that have been embalmed, as maraschinos are—bleached white with formaldehyde and then dyed. Breyers and other producers of the natural article make do with the real thing—dark red to black, imperfect and not dyed. At the other end of the frozen rainbow from Breyers are Marty Rex and Marcel Arsenault. They were writing their doctoral dissertations in molecular biology ten years ago at the University of Colorado at Boulder, when Arsenault’s homemade ice cream turned out to be so popular at parties they tried selling a few gallons to stores during the summer break. They now own Mountain High, a wildly popular superpremium freezery in Colorado that sells 20,000 gal. of natural ice cream a month.

There is an appealing “Hey, why don’t we …” quality to such stories. Gary Shaefer and Barbara Fingold were practicing family therapists in western Massachusetts a few years ago; they suspected that cuts in social-service funding lay ahead. In 1978 they bought Bart’s, an older ice-cream parlor in Northampton, Mass., a hungry college town, where Herrell was to set up his new place two years later. They are now doing very well handing out what might be considered a kind of therapy. Their customers are students, artists, shopkeepers and lawyers, and some of them, says Shaefer, come in three times a day. “It’s a social institution; people get phone calls, leave messages, sell houses, close legal deals.”

Bob’s Famous, a twelve-seat ice-cream parlor in the Glover Park section of Washington, D.C., has, in the words of one fascinated observer, “intentionally or unintentionally created a kind of hole-in-the-wall chic.” It sure has; suburbanites frequently drive an hour each way to stand in a 20-min. line in front of Bob’s and pay 950 for a cone and $3.75 for a quart of apple-peanut butter, banana mango or mocha almond. People buy Bob’s Kahlua for $17 per gal., and some have spent $40 to airfreight it across the country. Owner Bob Weiss, 35, a lawyer who tired of the profession when he followed his lawyer-wife to Washington, started the shop three years ago, and says wonderingly that he may gross $400,000 this year.

Ice-cream tasting is a notoriously erratic business. Not only subjectivity but sheer numbness is a problem. “Your taste buds get so cold they barely function on about the eighth lick,” I.A.I.C.M. Spokesman Witte explains. “Your nose still works O.K., but ice cream doesn’t smell much.”

Superpremium makers and feeders might take butterfat for thought from a test of 28 vanillas run a couple of Sundays ago by the Washington Star. Nine food experts, including Weiss, rated his own product fifth but decreed that Häagen-Dazs belonged in second place (“pleasing texture,” “natural flavor,” insufficient “oomph”). Frusen Glädjé was not tested; Alpen Zauber was far down the list, in the “puffy-fluffy, sweet-misery” category, having been rated “creamy but no taste,” “salty.” So were several other prestige brands: Sedutto’s, Bassetts, Baskin-Robbins, Louis Sherry, Breyers and Schrafft’s. First place went to the Giant food chain’s economy vanilla “Kiss,” which sells for $1.29 a half-gallon and contains milk fats, nonfat milk, sugar, corn sweetener, whey, locust bean and guar gums, mono-and diglycerides, calcium sulphate, Polysorbate 80, carrageenin, natural and artificial flavors, natural and artificial color, and the legal minimum of 10% butterfat.

Industry conservatives point out that not all natural flavors are vivid enough (Mattus has failed so far to make a peach ice cream that he considers good, and Häagen-Dazs will not sell peach until he succeeds). Raising butterfat much above the 16% or 17% level can produce a greasy mix that for some reason resists flavoring. Staleness kills ice cream, and natural brands, such as Breyers or Häagen-Dazs, to some extent become unnatural when they are shipped across the country and stored for too many weeks. Ice crystals form and texture coarsens when any ice cream is melted even slightly and then refrozen.

The reason that the ice cream in the best scoop shops tastes so good does not seem very mysterious. The player piano helps, and so does the chance to feel like Diamond Jim Brady and still get change back from a $5 bill. But what is most important is that the ice cream is likely to have been made the day before from the best ingredients that the local markets are offering (“Use overripe peaches!” yells Vermont’s Cohen to Mattus).

How did we reach this pinnacle? Ice cream was perfected in the U.S., as all honest chauvinists know, but it was not invented here. Nero liked to eat flavored ice, according to Paul Dickson’s scholarly and amusing The Great American Ice Cream Book, and in the 13th century Marco Polo returned from the Orient with a recipe for some sort of frozen dessert with milk in it. Catherine de Medicis appears to have introduced sherbets and ices, possibly ice cream, to France in 1533, when she arrived there with her retinue to marry the future Henry II. Beethoven, during the mild winter of 1794, feared that there would not be enough ice for the next summer to make ice cream in Vienna.

Ice cream is American by right of conquest, however. George Washington owned a gadget for making ice cream. Thomas Jefferson loved it. An American woman named Nancy Johnson invented the hand-cranked, rock salt-and-ice freezer in 1846, although she neglected to patent the machine. Robert M. Green, a Philadelphia visionary, gave the world the ice-cream soda in 1874. The ice-cream cone was the hit of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 in St. Louis. Christian Nelson, an Iowa candy-store proprietor, thought up chocolate-covered ice cream in 1919 but got nowhere until Russell Stover, an ice-cream company superintendent, searched the firmament and invented the name Eskimo Pie. By 1922 the pair were selling a million pies a day. A Youngstown, Ohio, confectioner named Harry Burt refined the idea by developing chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick, and the Good Humor bar was hatched. In 1924 the Individual Drinking Cup Co. (what a dull name!) came up with an ice cream container called the Dixie Cup (what a great name!). From 1930 to 1970, the inside of the paper lids carried pictures of movie stars, sports heroes and the like.

These were only the foothills of genius. The Good Humor Corp., with an excess of hubris, made a chili con carne ice-cream bar, which failed. L.L. Bassett, grandson of the founder of the great Philadelphia ice creamery (his daughter Ann took over the company five years ago), made yellow tomato ice cream in the 1930s. No one liked it. Dill-pickle ice cream, intended for pregnant women, was concocted by a shop in Michigan. It succeeded. More than one specialty shop whipped up jelly-bean ice cream in honor of Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration, but Washington Lawyer Weiss, perhaps foreseeing litigation, quickly withdrew his from his menu at Bob’s Famous. Said he: “It looked like a potential tooth chipper.”

If jelly-bean ice cream had existed in the first quarter of the century, soda jerks would have translated it into cocky fountain lingo. Dickson has compiled a marvelous glossary of such wise-guy locutions, including “Hoboken special,” which for some reason signified a pineapple soda with chocolate ice cream, and “twist it, choke it and make it cackle” for a chocolate malted with an egg (twist presumably for the twisting of the malted-milk beater, choke for chocolate, and cackle, of course, for the chicken that laid the egg). New scoop shops do not seem to have developed such a memorable language of their own. Carla Seidel, 20, a friendly, blond, Harvard psychology major who scoops the graveyard shift—11 p.m. to 7 a.m.—at Brigham’s in Harvard Square, describes the “zeroll” scooping technique (named for the anti-freeze-filled scoop that is used) that Brigham’s requires its employees to learn. “The idea is to get maximum surface area but to keep the scoop sort of hollow,” she explains. “You get a strip of ice cream that curls around on itself.” Scoopers are trained to whip out precisely 4 oz. per small scoop, 5½ oz. for a medium scoop and 7 oz. for a large. But what ends up happening, she notes, is that customers who talk to the scoopers get more ice cream. She and her colleagues fight brain-fade by sizing up customers (“definitely a Swiss orange-chip person”) the way soda jerks used to do. “The other day a guy came in and ordered a frappe with vanilla and mocha-chip ice cream, vanilla syrup, marshmallow sauce, hot butterscotch and an egg. That was weird.” Her word frappe here is a Frenchified New England term for what Midwesterners call a milkshake.

There are other regional differences in the national passion. The steamy South-Central states consume less than half (10.77 qt. per digestive system per year) as much as the hungriest region, which is New England (21.86 qt.). Marketing men in the dairy industry have a suspicion that forthright Southeasterners will not eat what they cannot pronounce. A superpremium sells there under the no-foolin’ name of Rich & Creamy.

Thus it is that the best ice cream in the world, as anyone who has tried it will argue, is sold by McConnell’s, in California, which somehow manages to saturate its product with 22% butterfat, currently a North American record. By Gerber’s of Atlanta. By Graeter’s of Cincinnati. By Bud’s of San Francisco. By Vivoli’s of Berkeley. By (whisper its name) Bailey’s of Boston, which takes no notice of the new superpremium trend because it has been serving only the best since 1873, thank you very much, and which serves its sundaes in silver-plated bowls resting on silver-plated salvers. In New York City, you get Häagen-Dazs at Elaine’s, and Sedutto’s at the Four Seasons and “21.” Germaine’s in Washington, D.C., serves a litchi-nut ice cream made specially by Bob’s Famous; Lockeober’s in Boston serves ice cream specially made by Bailey’s. Chasen’s, Scandia and Perino’s in Los Angeles haughtily refuse to divulge their ice-cream brands.

Forget all this, and resolve the next time you are in Texas to obtain the best ice cream in the world, which is made by the Blue Bell Creameries of Washington County, between Austin and Houston. Texans admit that this is true. President Ed Kruse says, “We don’t regard our ice cream as gourmet as such but rather as just a damn good product.” He starts telling a story about a lady from Anderson, Texas, who moved to the wilds of California and had a friend regularly ship her Blue Bell’s damn good product by commercial airliner. Have we heard this story before? Only once, at each of the best ice-cream shops in the world. Are some of these people turning up the air pump ever so slightly on the truth? Of course not; it is all true; the faltering U.S. airline industry would be bankrupt if it were not for thousands of gluttonous eccentrics, exiled from their home towns, freighting the world’s best ice cream back and forth.

And now the writer is going to excuse himself. Ben & Jerry’s, in Vermont, is only 2½ hours away. Steve’s new place in Northampton, Mass., may be a little nearer, although there is traffic to consider. Bob’s Famous in Washington is not out of the question, a mere ten hours of maniacal driving in the beckoning distance. Decisions, decisions. Shallow thinkers may feel that a householder who must budget his sanity—so much for taxes, so much for education, etc.—should not fritter it away by brooding about a children’s dessert. They are wrong. What is clear is that at this stage in the decline of the West, instinct tells us that we have a right to live in the golden age of something. Why should that something be acid rain or rocket launchers? Why not—an Oreo-mint cone, please, with a scoop of cantaloupe, and jimmies—do our wistful dreaming about one of civilization’s benign marvels, ice cream? —By John Skow.

Reported by Liz Ryan/Boston and Janice C. Simpson/New York, with other U.S. bureaus

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