The other day, our friends in Bellevale, N.Y., took us to what might be the loveliest, most organic, most nearly hand-churned ice cream stand this side of Sunnybrook Farm. The stuff is made from the milk of cows that not only enjoy a shabby-chic barn lifestyle, but spend their afternoons scrapbooking. Each has a 401(k) with matching contributions. These cows are so proud of their milk-making that one of them was recently featured udder-feeding on the cover of Time magazine.
Joking aside, the ice cream served there is truly delectable. The fruit in the blueberry swirl tastes fresh-picked. The chocolate chunks make other brands’ look like tiny pebbles. The whole experience is cold, creamy and yummy.
Of course it is! It’s ice cream. Swooning foodies may swear by its “mouth feel,” but the truth is, it’s hard to mess up ice cream, be it fancy or cheap.
(MORE: Frozen Summer Desserts to Help You Chill Out)
While la-di-da ice cream certainly has its place, every time a friend takes me out for a super-premium cone, my brain automatically hops in the car and heads for the old-school soft-serve joint. You know, the kind of shack that looks like an Edward Hopper painting sprung to life. The prices have tape over them, with higher ones markered on. Bees are holding a convention at the garbage can. The picnic tables are stickier than Post-Its. There’s a slightly petulant teen taking your order and a line growing to several whining children deep, because your server is still getting to used to the tremendous challenge of twirling a cone.
Once that task is accomplished, the server then parsimoniously parcels out one napkin per customer, as dictated by the laws of the soft-serve universe, wherein napkins are doled out in inverse proportion to the number needed. That is: If you get unlimited napkins at a place with zero mess (say, Starbucks), then you are allotted just one single-ply napkin at the frozen custard stand, where the ice cream is running down your arm even before you get your change. (Yes, I know frozen custard isn't ice cream to the Food and Drug Administration, but it is to me.) And within seconds, the first piece of chocolate shell has landed on your white tee.
Believe it or not, all this plays into the happy summer memories forever stored in our brains (and on our shirts). As my friend Laurie Draper put it, “Dairy Queen tastes like childhood.” She’s right. And the corollary to that is: Frou-frou ice cream does not. It may taste great, but the stuff of collective youthful memories it is not.
Fancy ice cream is a lot like the kettle-fried potato chips first foisted upon us by some nut who thought razor-thin Lays weren’t good enough. “Made in small batches!” the gourmet brands boast, as if we care. I’m not eating it for the process; I’m in it for the salt and fat. You can fry your chips in a container the size of a tea cozy — just don’t make them so thick and “natural” that only beavers can bite into them. Please make mine easy to eat mindlessly. Even toothlessly.
Not that there’s anything wrong with new-fangled foods, like super-premium "put me in a handcrafted biodynamic waffle cone" ice cream. (How did we grow up well-adjusted without salted caramel ice cream?!) It’s just that there’s something very right about that frozen stuff we all remember from hot summer nights long ago, when it didn’t matter if the ice cream came from a free-range cow or a giant baggie, so long as it was cold, and it was summer. And it was sweet.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book Free-Range Kids and a blog of the same name (Free-Range Kids).