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For love of ice cream: a personal history

hojo JPEGBack in the prime of Father Knows Best, when Betty Crocker ruled the kitchen book shelf and TV commercials extolled the health-giving properties of Wonder Bread, my notion of the last word in ice cream could be had atHoward Johnson’s in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. HoJo’s was a thriving chain then, renowned both for the orange roofs of its faux colonial restaurants and for 28 flavours of ice cream served with a special scoop, so that your treat perched precariously atop its cone like an outsize tutu on a pear-shaped ballerina.

You had to be pretty deft with your tongue not to lose great frozen chunks of the ice cream tutu. More than any of the flavours, I remember the sweet, frantic effort to lick the stuff into submission before half of it landed on the pavement. I had a playmate who favoured ice cream brinksmanship. She’d let the ice cream start to melt, then bite off the bottom of the cone and suck a rivulet of chocolate into her mouth.

There comes a landmark in the life of every child when all the ice cream finally makes it to the mouth, as opposed to the hands or the clothes. Truth to tell, I’m not quite there. I still seem to need more paper napkins than anyone over age five. Some would call this messy. I call it getting into the ice cream spirit.

My current flavour obsession (so seductive, my mouth tingles at the thought) is on the face of it thoroughly adult—the dark chocolate chili gelato at Ed’s Real Scoop, a five-minute drive from my home in downtown Toronto. I can’t go into Ed’s and notorder dark chocolate chili; it’s that good. Correction: I’m that single-minded, like a kid who won’t accept any bedtime story but Goodnight, Moon or any DVD but the last hit from Pixar.

For every phase of my life, there’s a defining ice cream experience. My teens: a daily apres-school trek to the store for an ice cream bar—most delicious in winter, when crisp flakes of chilled dark chocolate snapped under my tongue as I strolled and dreamed with my friend Ruth.

First trip to Maine with my husband and son: Ames Ice Cream, an enchanting home-based dairy Grandma Moses might have painted (Mom Ames, in spectacles and apron, heaped our bowls while Pop, in Red Sox cap, watched the game).

Building my freelance career: ice cream lunches at Greg’s, my reward for a long morning with the phone at my ear. Yes, yes, I know. A nutritional crime! A sugar high with no redeeming vitamins or fibre! But the highlight of my day nonetheless. Sometimes Greg would exclaim, “Rona, I knew you were coming. I just opened a tub of Oreo!” How could my story fail to hit the mark? Greg had my favourite flavour and topped it himself with a generous scoop of crushed walnuts.

At one point I owned an ice cream maker in which I cranked out the combos of my fantasies. (Brandied fig? Why not?) Pureed blueberries drenched my kitchen counter (only wild would do); exotic nuts lined my shelves. But my creations never quite delivered the regressive, soul-suffusing pleasure of Greg’s—or Ed’s, for that matter.

When you get right down to the last precious lick, the joy of ice cream transcends the taste. It takes you back to a time when the best things in life were soft and lavished on you by someone whose mission was your happiness. Let grownups make their own ice cream. I’d rather be a kid and just eat it.

HoJo’s is all but gone by now. I don’t know what became of my friend Ruth, or when Ames Ice Cream closed its doors. The last time my husband and I went looking for the place, a good 20 years ago, we found no trace of the white clapboard farmhouse where we once chowed down at a table on the lawn. I’m not walking distance Greg’s anymore—and besides, the maestro no longer wields the scoop. So thank goodness for Ed’s, where all the power worth having is mine as I point to the dark chocolate chili and say, “Two scoops, please.”

I suppose the day might come when the ice cream in my bowl is what someone else decides to serve me. Memo to that person: please, no supermarket schlock. And don’t even think about that low-fat stuff. I like the texture creamy, the flavour intense. I have my standards. And I’ll keep them until my last breath.

Click here to read another favourite ode to eating, “The voyeuristic joys of grocery tourism.”

 Posted by Rona

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