Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Memoir in Ice Cream

My uncle, my godfather, died recently after a long struggle with life. Just a couple of months ago I spoke with him while he was in the hospital, and in the midst of our conversation he said he hoped to start disciplining himself to write more consistently. This was an activity he cherished but had never given any serious attention, and as part of his recovery, he hoped to focus on it more. Then he read me the shaky first jottings of a chronicle of his childhood via ice cream. I told him that I really was into the concept of a memoir refracted through that prism. He reminded me that he had owned an ice cream shop on Cape Cod for a while.

My uncle’s chapter prompted me to think about ice cream in my own life. I like ice cream, naturally, but I hadn’t ever thought of it as a integral part of my experience. The more I think about it, though, the more and more and more I think he was really onto something. My initial reaction of agreement with the subject was really more of an unveiling.

Since he passed, I’ve given some thought to that essay and my encouragement to him. I’ve given a lot of thought to ice cream and its importance in his life and mine. I think he’d be happy to know that this is my last memory of him. This is for Joel.

New England isn’t what you’d call a posh place. Sure it has lots of old money and a reputation for colonial nostalgia (ironic considering its role in ending that situation). But it doesn’t have (or seek) the glamour of New York or the political influence of Washington. Rather, New England owns a disproportionately large amount of America’s work ethic, and most people chalk that up to the Puritan founders. It is crammed with universities and museums and libraries and churches and foundations and other places where people go to think and learn and research and discuss. Perhaps it’s the seasonal vacillation between snow inundation and tyrannical humidity, but it’s a place where people do not shy away from challenges.

And for as long as ice cream has existed, New Englanders have furrowed their brows and stroked their chins and set this ethic on creating the most astonishing ice cream culture.

Maybe astonishing isn’t the right word. Molecular gastronomists in places like New York or Europe would probably roll their eyes at it. They create astonishing things: ice cream that isn’t either; things that look like ice cream but aren’t; ice creams in flavors which are tasty as anything but ice cream. Foie gras, bacon, balsamic vinegar, garlic—these people push the boundaries of good taste, literally.

This is not what ice cream means to a New Englander. As I said, it is a culture, a way of life. Ice cream in New England is not for hot days or carnivals or special occasions or pie a la mode. It is a service to humanity, an inalienable right. Partaking is to be encouraged at all times, whenever the spirit moves you, in the dead of winter or for breakfast. It is a holy substance, capable of healing psychic wounds and frayed relationships. There is no finer vision of American togetherness than a family sitting in a dark den after dinner watching television and each eating a dish of ice cream in silence. No words are needed. All are in a state of bliss.

But how did ice cream achieve this significance in New England? Perhaps it goes back to the seasonal vacillation and the old money. Once upon a time that old money was new, and those absurd mansions of the robber barons churned out all manner of flavored ices. Having the capability to serve 50 tiny dishes of pistachio ice cream in August when it’s 86 degrees out and 98% humidity and refrigeration hasn’t been invented yet takes some serious financial planning. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the ninth circle of hell winters that created ice thick enough on the rivers that it lasted through the summer in tremendous sawdust-covered blocks. Only someone recently in possession of a fortune would bother with such madness.

While our infatuation in New England with ice cream has only grown over the ensuing decades, we’ve stopped using it as a class system reinforcer, thank goodness.

Anyone who knows me can probably guess that my first conscious childhood ice cream memory is of Brighams. There was a shop in the town center, at the time pretty much the only place worth visiting there. I don’t know how long it was there, but it was set up like an old-fashioned spa, long and narrow like a boxcar, with rotating stools at the counter up front and pleather booths in the back. We never ate in, though; we never ate the food. No, no. It was all about the ice cream. We each had a cone, and we ate them in the car on the way home. On special occasions or every now and then just because, we’d order hand-packed quarts in a couple of flavors and a tub of hot fudge sauce, which was always poured into the paper container scalding hot. At home, we reheated the sauce so that it was like lava, poured into a freezing sea of vanilla ice cream, where it congealed into tarry, half-solid land masses of fudge. How many times I burnt the roof of my mouth eating ice cream! That extreme dichotomy, layer upon layer of yin and yang, playing out in a bowl at my kitchen table was a life philosophy for young me. It made so much sense, and it still does. No surprise then that Brighams remains my favorite, and nothing will ever supercede it. When I was about twelve, Brighams closed that shop and it was taken over by Regina Gifts. I never went into Regina again, out of spite.

Sometime around my age four or five, my sister got a job at Furlong’s, an independent candy shop and ice cream counter. Heaven, basically, and she was an angel of a sugary god, dispensing gummy bears in answer to my kindergarten prayers. But really Furlong’s excelled in three things: chocolate covered cherries, caramel turtles, and ice cream. They stood alone (and still do, I think) in what was then a relatively quiet stretch of Route 1, and they had a sizeable but oddly shaped parking lot where we could sit and eat our ice cream in peace. There was a horrible yellow light just above the ice cream window that I think was supposed to repel insects, but there always seemed to be gigantic fleshy moths everywhere. No one cared. The ice cream was packed deep into the cones. That’s what mattered. Furlong’s was the first place in my universe that served bubblegum ice cream, which was placed strictly off limits by Joan. I wasn’t much interested in it, actually, as I didn’t like the taste of plain bubblegum, but I did admire the fluorescent streaks of pink and blue in the white cream. Not long after that the same sister went for a job at another ice cream shop/diner, Friendly’s, a hellish local chain full of terrible food, gummy ice cream and greasy teenage staff who don’t wash their hands. She lasted one day. Furlong’s was a hard act to follow. It was also where the family went to celebrate my womanhood, me wearing an off-shoulder belly shirt and blue and white plaid shorts, my Period Outfit (thank you, Joan). Because what every eleven-year-old wants is to display to all and sundry her pale, pale stomach and her bra-less B-cup boobs on the first day of her period while she pigs out on ice cream. But these mortifications are what make us who we are.

Somewhere in mid-childhood, frozen yogurt gained a cult following, riding the coattails of step aerobics and power suits and bottled water. It was ice cream for executive mothers and sales vice presidents with images to maintain. A TCBY opened in town, and my girl scout troop went there and learned how to make waffle cones from scratch (not much interest to me—I have always been a sugar cone girl). Murray’s opened in the Walpole Mall, and I recall having the occasional, but always vaguely disappointing chocolate and vanilla swirl. It all had this horrible tang to it that I didn’t like. It was usually artificially sweetened in order to call itself the healthy alternative, but it was crammed with chemicals and hydrogenated vegetable oils. I have a hard time believing there was any yogurt in it. In any case, it was a fad that faded away. Froyo is still available of course, but they’ve stopped pretending it’s health food, and it’s often scooped like ice cream instead of pooped out of a metal bum. I guess some people genuinely like the taste. Whatever.

Maddie’s opened in Norwood center around the time that TCBY was fading into obscurity. It was the opposite of Brighams. It was all glass front and loopy neon signage. It was sleek and pretty. The ice cream was ok, but not great. They straddled the frozen yogurt/ice cream divide, and ended up not really doing either spectacularly well. As this was the early years of my teenagehood, some of my friends got summer jobs there, which seemed fun, especially in comparison to my summer job as a warehouse lackey at an un-air-conditioned trophy engraving shop. But the ice cream itself was never good enough to warrant a special visit by the Liotta clan. It did serve as a refugee camp once for my friends and I when a very fat and angry girl declared war on us. She sent a young minion over to us at the park to announce that she was going to beat the shit out of one of my friends for reasons that remain unclear. I calmly explained to the minion that if her boss wanted to come over and tell us herself, we’d be happy to entertain the prospect as a group, but as she was an enormous coward, we were instead going to Maddie’s for an ice cream and if the minion wanted to join us, she was more than welcome. The poor child hesitated for a good long while before saying she’d better not. We went along and waved cheerfully at the fat girl and her miserable posse from Maddie’s glass front.

It wasn’t too long before Maddie’s went the way of all things, and a new shop opened in the same spot, The Ice Jack. This was a more contemporary place. And by contemporary, I mean old fashioned in a hipster way. Sweet cream ice cream was on offer, a new one for me, and everything was handmade in the shop, and man was it good. It had hot fudge sauce to stir memories of Brighams. If it had opened fifteen years later, the proprietor would definitely have had a handlebar moustache. It was that kind of place. It was there one autumn evening when I sat outside having a dish of the good stuff when a Norwood cheerleader walked past and said, “Hey Megan Liotta, you just won homecoming queen. Why aren’t you at the dance?” To which I replied, “Because I’m here eating ice cream with my friends.” Senora Pelaggi, who organized the event, never forgave me. The last time I was in Norwood, The Ice Jack was still going strong. May it live forever.

There are dozens more ice cream incidents of my childhood (real strawberry ice cream with big chunks of frozen fruit at my grandparents' house in West Roxbury, deep-friend Mexican ice cream at El Torito for my sisters’ sixteenth birthdays, the ice cream shop near my dad’s firehouse which was itself formerly a firehouse, my own ill-fated attempt to bring order to Friendly’s as a hostess, banana frappes at Bubbling Brook), but life moves swiftly, and so shall we. When I was at Tufts, the only place worth getting ice cream was Denise’s in Davis Square. They had a peanut butter artery-bomb that was exceptional, but my favorite was their mint chocolate chip. A couple of years ago, it was taken over by JP Licks, to the demonstrable fury of the local population, which shows you just how strongly people feel about ice cream in New England, since JP Licks is itself a local company and makes very serviceable ice cream.

One college summer, I babysat one last time for a family I had babysat for years. This time I had their youngest alone, who was a very precocious three. The rest of the family was off to a Red Sox game, and as a consolation, I was to take Sammy to Bubbling Brook for an ice cream cone. From their house, there were two opposite but equidistant ways to reach Bubbling Brook. Having chosen my route, I drove off with Sammy in the back in her car seat. Straight away she said, “This isn’t the way to Bubbling Brook.” “Yes it is, Sammy, don’t worry,” I called back. “This isn’t the way!” she insisted. “It is, Sammy; it’s just a different way.” Silence. Then muttering: “This isn’t the way.” Just a mile or two before arrival, the two routes converge and the remaining journey they have in common. Suddenly from the backseat: “Oh this IS the way!” Even at her tender age, the one place she could have found on a map was the local ice cream shop. She messily and joyfully ate a vanilla soft serve with strawberry coating. I gave her a bath later and we watched a movie. What a great kid.

Then I graduated and moved to New York and then to England, neither of which excels at ice cream. The consequence is that I don’t eat much of it now, not a bad thing considering the old hypertension problem. But there is an element of joy missing from these regions. On Husband’s first visit to Boston, we had an evening of gluttony, which started with lobster and drawn butter on my mother’s back porch and which finished with an ice cream cone in the parking lot of Crescent Ridge Farm. As Husband attacked a “small” cone of moosetracks, which resembled nothing so much as a pint of ice cream heaped onto a toothpick, I commented that it was no wonder America had an obesity problem when you looked at the portion sizes. He replied, as he attempted valiantly to make headway, “No, the reason America has an obesity problem is because the food is so good.” Point taken, especially at Crescent Ridge.

Now we occasionally buy ice cream here in England, but the options are limited: vanilla, sweet cream, strawberry, chocolate, chocolate with chocolate things in it, or caramel with chocolate things in it, or chocolate with caramel things in it. The “European” style ones are worse. They have ridiculous packaging and the ice cream has an unpleasant gumminess, like it’s been whipped with extra fat. They do have Ben & Jerry’s, but the flavor options remain within the above mentioned boundaries. In my extreme youth, it was vanilla for me (or “gorilla” as I called it. It still tickles me think that I somehow knew the word gorilla, but not vanilla). In my early double digits, I graduated to chocolate with chocolate jimmies. But now my more sophisticated palate yearns for peppermint stick, mint chocolate chip, maple walnut, and mocha almond. ALWAYS mocha almond. I have to wait until my annual visit to Boston to deal with this problem. A year and a half ago, Husband’s parents bought us a tiny ice cream machine for Christmas. It only makes about a pint at a time. I’m still learning how to make it do what I want, but a new favorite has recently emerged, the old Victorian classic, brown bread ice cream. Aside from the fact that it is easy to make, it gives you in a simple sweet cream base all that is good and wonderful about toast. I am not making this up. Google it and do yourself a favor and try making it at home. Your life will change.

One last anecdote: such is the pull of New England ice cream, that the mass migration of my mother’s family to the southeast of the country in the Eighties caused a problem. The mecca of biscuits and fried chicken and sweet tea, the spiritual home of soul food couldn’t deliver on ice cream. It just couldn’t. Greensboro, North Carolina was suddenly full of Northerners yearning for Brighams chocolate chip. Specifically. Yearning to the point that my parents called up Brighams in Norwood center and had them hand pack a five gallon drum with the stuff, packed it in dry ice, and then they carried it in a giant cooler as carry-on luggage on a flight from Boston to Greensboro. How many times were we stopped by security asking what the hell was this? What was this showing up on the x-ray. Uh, it’s obviously a five gallon drum of Brighams chocolate chip! What else? Oh, ok then. Carry on. It was Boston; they understood. All the way to Greensboro on the airplane, the drum was then stored in the chest freezer in the garage of my aunt’s next door neighbor. These people actually let us have free access to their home so that we could eat ice cream whenever we wanted. Cousins who hadn’t been exposed to Brighams before tried to resist, tried to tell me that Breyers (Breyers!!) was the really good stuff. But I knew better. Breyers might do in a pinch in Greensboro, but Brighams brought the family together.