James and I got out of the car on Tuesday morning and stood on the patio, our faces to the sun.
“Seventy-five degrees!” he said.
I, of course, was thinking about eating.
“Let’s surprise your dad, and have picnic food for lunch,” I said. I ran in and got the little quilted tablecloth that Sharon made for me one year; I cleaned off the patio table and wiped down three metal chairs. I spread the cloth and anchored it with an old citronella candle. The wind lifted its edges; it luffed and rippled.
I went inside to break out some burgers and fire up the little electric grill. Jim read the instructions for his new air fryer and set it to preheat. I opened the freezer to get the crinkle-cut fries out for him, and there was the big plastic tub of vanilla ice cream. The angels sang a suggestion in my mind’s ear, and, “Hey!” I said. “HEY! We could have MILK SHAKES.”
“O-kay!” said Jim, and I dug in a bottom drawer for my little stick blender.
By the time Mark came home, the burgers were sizzling and the fries were golden brown and crisp, and two chocolate milkshakes waited in the tall red plastic glasses we bought for the Fourth of July one year. I was mixing up a third—this one was salted caramel, using a shake of sea salt and the last of a jar of dulce con leche. (I’d given up chocolate, of course—hence, a salted caramel milk shake: oh, the sacrifices I make during Lent.)
The wind had picked up, and the skies had turned a roiling gray, so we ate inside after all. But even inside, we could feel that current of fresh warmth in the unheated-by-furnace-gusts air. And the food was so good: juicy burgers dripping cheese, salty, crisp fries. And piquant pickles, crackling lettuce, and slices of tomato as the eater decreed.
And ice cream thickly whipped with milk and flavors, technically a shake, but requiring a spoon to eat.
The image of Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives pops into my head; he is gesturing broadly with his arms, saying, in response to a chef’s question:
“LIKE chicharrons?? Buddy, this is body by chicharrons!”
I paraphrase: Do I like ice cream? Honey, this is body by ice cream.
People may connect and depart; fashions may flare and flicker. I’ve made homes and left them, snagged jobs and moved on. But in the constant change and quirky chaos of life, there’s always been a constant.
From my earliest days, ice cream has been there, delighting, tantalizing, refreshing.
So, just for a minute, let me remember ice cream. Let me remember…
…a weekend when I was very young, young enough that my brother Sean was still in a stroller. Dad was taking the big boys somewhere—a Cleveland Indians game, I think—and Mom was walking us, the two little ones, to Hunter’s. It was a long walk, with many streets to cross, and it was not something we often did. This was a special occasion.
Hunter’s smelled like roasting nuts. We sat on spinning stools at the counter, and I ordered a sundae. The man (I think it was Mr. Hunter) wore a paper hat and he smiled at my mother and made faces at Sean. He twirled a tulip glass off the shelf, and scooped thick, hot fudge sauce from a square metal box. Then he scooped big orbs of yellow ice cream from a vast cardboard tub, smushing them to fit into the glass. More hot fudge. The shizzzzzing noise as he spiraled whipped cream on top. A sprinkle of nuts. A cherry.
Sean had a miniature sundae and Mom had a huge cherry cone. She ate the cherry from the top of my sundae, but I ate all of the rest myself.
(It was the best thing I had ever eaten, and I didn’t have to share with anyone.)
…and I remember a family trip in the car to a dairy that was thirty miles away, high in the rolling hills of western New York. The dairy advertised itself as “The Pig’s Inn.” And they had a monumental ice cream dish called “The Pig’s Dinner.” Several flavors of ice cream, several kinds of topping, whipped cream, pineapple, bananas: the Pig’s Dinner was a LOT of food. It was served in a wooden contraption that looked like a mini-pig’s trough.
The Dinner was pricey, but those who successfully ate the entire thing didn’t have to pay.
Memory tells me the whole family—all seven of us—and Bobby, one of my oldest brother Dennis’s friends, crammed into the family sedan for the long trip. It could have worked; in those days, before car seat safety laws, Sean may have sat on my mother’s lap, and I may have been wedged between my parents on the undivided front seat. That would have left the four big boys, three brothers, one friend, crammed into the back.
It was a nice night, I remember, and there was an air of excitement: Dennis and Bobby were going to try the Pig’s Dinner. Dennis was tall and rangy, but he had an appetite for food that belied his thin frame.
Inside, the dairy was a broad, long, open room. There was a snack bar on a finished floor, and a borderline where the vinyl floor gave way to cement. My parents propped my baby brother Sean on a tall bar stool and went to order for all of us.
I don’t remember the ice cream I ate that night, although it was made on premises, from cows, I imagine, owned by the dairy. I know it must have been very good. I DO remember Sean falling backward off the stool; his head cracked resoundingly on the edge of the concrete floor, and he sobbed and sobbed. A frantic boy, a soda jerk, I guess, kept bringing cloths full of ice and apologizing.
I remember my mother saying, “Oh, Lord. He’s got a goose egg,” and wondering how big a goose egg might be.
And I remember Dennis and Bobby, ignoring the brouhaha, unsympathetic to Sean’s plight, applying themselves to their ice cream troughs. They were diligent and strategic; they approached the chore methodically. But after 30 minutes, they had both begun to flag, and at the end of an hour, it was clear the prize was not within their reach.
Tearstricken, overstuffed, quiet, a chastened group shoved back into the car to drive down the hills to home.
Dad gunned the car and we rollicked up and down hills, until we reached a bridge over a small, sparkling river, maybe ten minutes out of town.
“Let me out!” Dennis begged.
“Let me OUT!” Bobby echoed.
Dad pulled over, and Dennis and Bobby, each, by dint of seniority, having a door seat, burst out of opposite sides of the car and ran to opposite sides of the road. Clinging to the railing, they each tossed their Pig’s Dinner into the laughing waters.
There was a shocked silence in the car, and then, “Shut the damned doors,” said my father. Michael and John, in the back seat, did as they were told, and my father pulled away.
“Jim!” my mother wailed. “You can’t just leave them there.”
“They’re not ralphing in MY car,” my father said grimly.
(He did eventually go back to get them, but he gave them plenty of time to get their Pig’s Dinners out of their systems.)
…And that dairy reminds me of another dairy in my home town that made their own ice cream: Aldrich’s. Aldrich’s employed generations of high schoolers at their restaurant, where you could sit and eat looking at cows in the fields, wondering if Bossy’s brother had died to make your juicy burger, knowing that the ice cream in your sundae—and oh, what sundaes they were!—came from Aldrich cows’ cream.
But Aldrich’s had another claim to fame: their April Fool’s Day concoctions. It started as a joke, I think—one year, one of the Aldrich kids, maybe, suggested putting spaghetti into the ice cream on April Fool’s Day, and people loved it. It grew into a long tradition: weird flavored ice cream on the first of April. They had April Fool’s pastrami ice cream one year, and bacon and egg ice cream another. During the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, they whipped up gallons and gallons of “peach-mint” ice cream. People would travel from miles around to sample their outrageous offerings; NPR and Johnny Carson and other prestigious media outlets sent their runners every year to see what the flavor, a closely kept secret, would be.
The last year, I believe, the Aldriches whipped up a batch of Buffalo chicken wing ice cream. Buffalo was fifty miles northeast; Aldrich’s little village of Fredonia boasted some of the best Buffalo wings in the region.
And then the dairy, to the community’s deep sadness, closed their doors forever.
At least two of my nieces and nephews earned their high school cash as servers at Aldrich’s. When my son James was a toddler, he loved their burgers and fries and would spend hours looking through their wonderful collection of plush animal puppets. I met friends there to devour sundaes and drink endless cups of coffee.
But, perhaps remembering Dennis and Bobby retching on that lonely bridge, I was never tempted to sample their April Fool’s Day offerings.
…And it could be said that ice cream paid my way through college. For three summers, my friends and I worked the midnight shift at Dunkirk Ice Cream, or D.I.C.—the Big DIC, as some referred to the factory. Think Luci and Ethel and the chocolates assembly line: we packed thousands of twin pops and fudgesicles, which flew at us with amazing speed and precision down specialized, intricate, massive machines called Vitalines.
We were heroes to our families because we could buy all the ice cream products at cost. We filled out request forms once a week; the cost was charged back to our paychecks, and for less than ten dollars, we would lug home novelties and half gallon bricks, sherbet and freezer pops—all the cold confections our families’ freezers would bear.
It sounds idyllic, working in an ice cream factory in the hot days of summer, having all the frozen treats one could want at our disposal. But the factory, unlike its output, was steaming hot, floors slippery with melted product, and the machines, with chomping, guillotine-like cutters that turned long strips of twin pops into individual frozen treats, were frightening. One of the mechanics had lost the better part of his thumb to one of those choppers, and the rumor said that it was never recovered. Probably, the lifers told us, some poor customer opened up a popsicle one day and there, stuck to the side of the refreshing cherry treat, was Charley’s digit.
Those lifers knew how to party, knew where the bars were that opened at 7:00 AM to cash our paychecks and serve us rounds of beers as the sun rose. They knew where to buy a quarter keg at 7:30 AM, and they knew the public parks that would turn a blind eye to people in fudge-stained whites quaffing plastic cups of beer first thing on a hot summer day.
I worked long weeks without a day off during the hot summer seasons at D.I.C., when supermarkets up and down the east coast and in the Midwest needed their frozen treats NOW. I cemented friendships at Dunkirk Ice Cream that are still solidly in place today, but I never learned how to hold my beer, or how to shut my mouth when its effects kicked in. Trial by ice cream, one could call it; that other side of the educational experience one gets when one’s in college.
“Lordie,” people would say to me, “you must be SO SICK of ice cream.” But, oddly, that was never true. I could dream of quiescently frozen confections marching toward me, and the chunka chunka chunka of the gleaming blade slicing stick treats into individual packages. And I would wake up and think, “There are English toffee bars in the freezer! Yum!”
The work got old, and the culture did, too, maybe, but the ice cream always remained a treat.
And all that was good preparation for life in Ohio, which some call “The State of Presidents.” And it’s true; eight United States presidents hailed from Ohio. But I believe an equally apt name would be, “Ohio: The Ice Cream State.” Graeter’s, which hails from Cincinnati, has been churning out ice cream for over 140 years, winning awards and expanding its reach. Dietsch Brothers, in Findlay, Ohio, captivated us during the law school days, and when we go back to visit Terri and Ott, we always stop at Dietsch’s for a sundae. There’s Velvet Ice Cream and its wonderful Olde Mill, where barbershop quartets trill in the park on summer days, and one can browse the museum of ice cream history with a cram-packed waffle cone full of amazing goodness.
There are a growing number of Whit’s locations, where frozen custard morphs a muggy summer night into a spectacular shared memory.
And there is Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, which planted its seeds in Columbus, Ohio, and has grown to fame in other states and through best-selling recipe books. At first, Jeni’s flavors reminded me of Aldrich’s April Fool’s Day batches: sweet potato ice cream with torched marshmallows? Really? There was another creamy concoction that included kernels of corn, and, Oh, this can’t be right, I thought.
But then I tasted their Midwestern Whiskey and Pecan blend, and I realized Jeni’s was no joke. Made with locally sourced products, made with outrageous imagination, Jeni’s is just good, if unconventional, Ohio ice cream.
When visitors come to Ohio, we take them for ice cream. They can come twenty times, and we’ll find a different place to go each visit.
Ice cream! Have you ever been there for a baby’s first taste, for the surprise, the widened eyes, and the slow-coming, gummy grin?
Think of birthday parties and the aunties or the mamas scooping out ice cream onto wobbling paper plates with homemade cake slices.
Think of home-grown ice cream socials with homemade toppings—caramel sauce dense with cream and butter, strawberries floating in their own thick, rich, sugar-laden syrup.
Ice cream was there.
These days, the treats I keep in my freezer are often frozen yogurt, or low-fat, double-churned ice cream. I might make my milkshakes with skim milk and fat-free chocolate syrup, but the taste of ice cream buoys me nonetheless.
I’ve had to unload other erstwhile treats and leave them by the roadside as the journey lengthened and my pack grew heavy. Six packs of beer and vast plates of roaring hot wings and steaming pots of highly caffeinated brew, popcorn and individually-wrapped caramels and certain kinds of cookies and sweet treats: all left on the berm, forlorn litter from an overly indulgent life.
But ice cream—a milkshake, a cone, a dish while watching TV—ice cream stays with me. It’s blended into my history, there in good times and in bad, to celebrate and commiserate.
I raise a stick; I hoist a waffle cone. I turn the blender on.
Here’s to ice cream, I say. May its cold, creamy flavors bear us on.