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ice cream

9 september 2011

Perhaps the most striking dynamic explored in Laura Weiss's excellent Ice Cream: A Global History is the enormous, labor-intensive operations devoted to ice-creamery before the advent of cheap electrical power. Primitive ices, in classical times or even earlier, were made with ice and snow carted down from mountains. In early modern times, the lakes of New England and Scandinavia were sawn into ice that was shipped worldwide, mixed with salt, and churned by hand to freeze dairy desserts. The technology of ice-cream making is all basically pre-modern; all the 20th century did was provide the lavish power that turned ice cream from an artisanal treat into an boundless sweet glacier of fat.

Though artisanal and industrial ice-cream are basically made the same way, the ingredients in the mass-produced stuff make for a very different "mouth feel," and hence a sharp contrast in associations. Small-producer gelato, home-cranked ice cream, and "super-premium" retail pints are thick stuff, abominably rich, inherently decadent. Mass-produced American ice cream, sold in supermarket bricks or tubs, or scooped up at neighborhood parlors, is inherently less deluxe. But one could make a case that it's merely different. After chewing your way through a heavy scoop of Ben & Jerry's, it's possible to scoop up some Blue Bell – emulsified and made of 50% air though it may be – and be ravished by its silky lightness.

I was intrigued by Weiss's remark that Ben Cohen (Jerry's business partner) has "very little sense of taste and smell" (112), and therefore supercharged his ice creams with bits of this and that, and extra helpings of flavor essence. An anosmic like myself! Though I can barely still taste real bananas, I now realize why Chunky Monkey brings me back to the banana experiences of my more-osmic youth. Before long, to taste anything, I will have to open up its Ben & Jerry's equivalent. Not that I'm complaining.

Though a few hours after I eat the stuff, I will be complaining. My lactose intolerance – which I have self-diagnosed via obvious inferences – has largely cut me off from the pleasures of ice cream. Even more so than cheese, in which at least some lactose is processed away, ice cream belongs to the lactophilic tribes of the earth. Invented in Italy, devoured in France, England, Anglo-America, and India in various forms, ice cream maps the Indo-European languages in their global dispersion.

Ice cream, whether you can still eat it or not, remains evocative to many an adult because of childhood associations. My most poignant ice-cream memory is that of being promised, well before I ever had tonsil trouble, that removal of those organs would bring me all the ice cream I wanted. It seemed worth the trouble of surgery. But my actual tonsillectomy involved such complications that I never did get that ice cream. (I suspect my anosmia dates from that operation, too, so I lost out on both the dessert and the lifelong ability to taste it.)

Lest the world's smallest violins start playing, I have happier random ice cream memories evoked by Weiss's Ice Cream. The first time I went to a major-league baseball game (in 1965, at Wrigley Field), I would not leave till I'd gotten ice cream: a tiny paper cup of oily stuff, swirled white and brown and eaten with a flat wooden "spoon." I remember ice cream in stage shows I worked on as an adolescent. How do you offer ice cream as a prop to actors? You make it out of cold mashed potatoes: they look just like the real thing from the seats.

And finally, ice cream in history. It's not in Ice Cream, but I still recall from some childhood history text the image of the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, abandoning ship during the battle of the Coral Sea. "The men were taken off by destroyers and cruisers," said Captain Frederick Sherman. "They were so calm that some went below deck and filled their helmets with ice cream from the ship's stores and went over the side eating it." Re-reading accounts of the Lexington's demise as an adult, it was an extremely hairy business, with the loss of many aboard. But the eternally sunny Yank at war is summed up for me in the image of a helmetful of ice cream.

Weiss, Laura B. Ice Cream: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2011.