Last week I posted my old prosecutor’s thoughts on how to analyze a sexual assault allegation, using the current accusation by Tara Reade against Joe Biden as my case study. Over the last seven days, there’s been a lot of new information reported, seriously questioning Ms. Reade’s reputation for truthfulness, including a well-padded resumé and as many as two dozen incidents of lying under oath to qualify as a domestic violence expert witness in California and Washington. With what we already knew last week, this new information leaves her credibility in tatters and subject to a possible criminal investigation for perjury. Her unqualified “expert” testimony may lead to several verdicts being overturned.
I am, of course, referring to ice cream.
As Queen of All Comfort Foods and Original Break-up Meme, ice cream has no challenger. Seriously, in any Hollywood rom-com, all you need do to signal “Guy and Girl are Splitsville” is a lingering low-angle medium close-up of The Girl, bathed in television-screen light, wearing a faded college sweatshirt, no makeup, and a sloppy top knot, eating Häagen-Dazs with a serving spoon.
[FunFoodFact: The name Häagen-Dazs is a vaguely Scandinavian-looking nonsense word, made up by a Jewish couple from Brooklyn in 1961. Or possibly by the Swedish Chef from The Muppets. One or the other.]
Being a data-driven kinda guy—no really, stop chuckling—it turns out ice cream consumption in the United States spiked 50% during the first month of the Corona Quarantine. This was outpaced only by potato chips (at 60%, but with the advantage of no refrigeration) and on a par with Prego spaghetti sauce (52%, because many, many lasagnas). Somewhat to my surprise, ice cream growth has well outdistanced Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers (26%—setting up epic clashes between toddlers and stress-eating parents).
[FunFoodFact: Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers now come in FOUR colors. Really, what were they thinking? They’re GOLDfish. QED.]
Ice cream is deeply embedded in our American DNA. The Pavlovian response that even wizened, world-weary adults have to the sound of the Good Humor truck almost reaches the level of instinctive behavior.
Growing up in Skeeterville, we were too small a burg to support a legit full-up Good Humor operation. Instead, we had the Tastee Treats Guys. These were college students doing their summer gig. Their conveyance was a kind of reverse-tricycle apparatus with a big cooler box bolted to the front chilled down with dry ice. They pedaled these around town, up and down the residential streets, tinkling a little bar of bells attached to the handlebars. Very low-rent, compared to the insipid ding-ding-dong-ding amplified tunes of the modern Good Humor truck.
[FunFoodFacts: The original Good Humor trucks also had a large bar of bells the driver jangled by pulling a cord that passed through the roof of the cab.]
The Tastee Treats Guys purveyed all manner of Frozen Things on Sticks—various colors of popsicles, which, if we’re being honest, all tasted the same; Creamsicles; Eskimo Pies; Rocket Pops that turned your lips blue; and PushUps that consisted of a striped toilet paper tube with a cylinder of orange sherbet on a stick inside that you, well, pushed up. I loved PushUps—the perfect equipoise of tastes between artificial-orange sherbet and a touch of cellulose from the cardboard tube. You could get anything they had for less than 50 cents. Good times.
At some point during my early high school years, the father of one of my classmates opened a Baskin-Robbins franchise, which really changed the whole ice cream landscape of my Skeeterville youth. Sure, we had a couple of seasonal frozen custard stands, but that stuff wasn’t what you’d call premium ice cream. Mostly, it was Something Cold upon which you could pile huge amounts of hot fudge, marshmallow sauce, and whipped cream. (NO NUTS, PLEASE!)
Baskin Boo-Boo’s was something else entirely. First and foremost, because it was year-round. Second, because they always had 31 Flavors, of course. Finally, their ice cream cakes were a game changer for any celebration of whatever type.
Curious thing that it took Skeeterville so long to land a Baskin-Robbins store. Butch Baskin—one half of the eponymous founders—was born in Skeeterville, where his dad owned a clothing store where my Mom used to shop as a girl. And he graduated from good ol’ Skeeterville High, just like yours truly.
Fast forward twenty years—during which time the most significant ice cream innovation in America was, of course, the 1991 debut of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough—to me and Kay-Kay and three kids being sent by the Air Force to Italy for three years.
Now let me state unequivocally—and I will defend this against all challengers—no one does ice cream better than the Italians. Also cannoli, pizza, and many other foodstuffs with Italian-sounding names. There may be a correlation here.
Ice cream in Italian is gelato. Some snooty American food experts will dispute whether gelato is actually the same as ice cream. Do not listen to these people for they are evil. There may be some minor differences in average milk-fat content and optimal serving temperature, but the only true difference is that gelato is ice cream that’s many times better than any American ice cream. Period, full stop, end of argument.
In three years in Italia, we ate a lot of gelato. Every Italian—and any self-respecting expatriate—had his/her favorite gelateria and would consider going to any other as down-market slumming. When we first moved overseas, we lived right around the corner from da Katia, a bona fide artisanal gelateria run by, ummm, Katia. Like any true gelateria, all her flavors were made entirely in house. Although there were year-round mainstays like stracciatella (chocolate chip, sort of) and fior di latte (no American equivalent), her flavors rotated with the seasons. There was nothing more exciting, for example, than seeing amarena in the freezer case in early summer—meaning wild cherries were in season. My daughter, Peanut, was a strict devotee of frutti di bosco (mixed wild berries), while my eldest son, Scooter, was more of a dabbler. Our youngest, Doobie, was a straight-up chocolate-and-vanilla man, but it was premium chocolate and real vanilla, always.
When we moved after a year as Katia’s neighbors, it was a mournful experience, gelato-speaking. Our new village—gasp!—didn’t even have a gelateria to call its own. We wandered the highway that ran along the foothills of the Dolomites, searching for a replacement. We found another true—and really old—artisanal gelateria a few villages down in Polcenigo. Being less than three miles up the road, this didn’t put much of a crimp in our gelato consumption.
I recall an amusing story from our Polcenigo gelateria. Scooter’s desire to speak Italian sometimes outpaced his ability with the language, but he always tried. One night at the gelateria, he wanted two scoops of fragola (strawberry), so he said, “Voglio due… due… due…scoopa di fragola.” The Italian word for “scoop” is palina—literally “little ball.” The owner, having so many American customers from the nearby air base, spoke fluent English. He looked a little puzzled for a moment, then realized what Scooter was doing—adding an -a to the end of any old English word—and broke into a huge belly laugh. He gave us the strawberry gelato free that night.
We’ve returned to Italy several times since the ’90s, mostly when I was teaching five-week summer law sessions in Rome. The Eternal City is a curious place for gelato. There are a lot of gelaterie—every piazza has at least one. Trouble is that half of these are unabashedly for tourists. The way to tell the difference? A gelateria touristica has beautiful gelato. Their stainless steel pans are literally overflowing with big, colorful, cloud-like billows of gelato beckoning you from off the street.
Do not eat this gelato. It’s beautiful, but it’s cosmetic surgery. All that puffiness and volume is nothing but air and ice. Which does nothing but dilute the taste and destroy the perfect dense and stretchy texture of true gelato. This tourist gelato is notoriously chock full of artificial colors and flavors, emulsifiers, and Other Yucky Stuff. It’s also seldom made from fresh ingredients and is usually produced at central facilities. Avoid this gelato like the coronavirus.
Instead, look for gelato that’s flat not puffy, shiny not icy-grainy, and being purchased by Many People Speaking Italian. That last thing is the failsafe tell—always eat what the Italians are eating. They know their ice cream. Actually, that goes for Italian restaurants, too. Also, bakeries and pizzerias. OK, basically anyplace that sells anything in Italy.
Sadly, we’re in a period wherein none of us is likely to get to Italy soon. È molto triste. Until then, I shall allow you to eat the best premium ice cream you can find in your somewhat denuded supermarket freezer section.
Me? Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, hands down…
Please feel free to leave your ice cream—or gelato—reminiscences in the Comments. We need to stick together in these troubling times, after all.