When my daughter Magda was four months old, we flew to California for a vacation. We were living in Rochester, New York, where it was still icy, gray winter, and so it seemed like a miracle to walk along the Venice Boardwalk, bedazzled by sunshine. I was holding her upright, in the crook of my left arm and in my right hand I had an ice cream cone, a soft serve swirl of vanilla and orange sherbet as bright as the day. She had only started on solid food, eating tiny spoonfuls of gray rice cereal mixed with baby formula. Then suddenly, she went face down, mouth wide open onto the ice cream cone in my hand.
Until that instant, I’d been unconsciously harboring doubts about whether we were mother and daughter. I’d had a C-section, and because of the white curtain hung across my middle, I hadn’t been able to see her when she was lifted from me by the triumphant doctor. And she had enormous, Gulf of Mexico blue eyes—while mine are olive green with splotches of muddy brown. But that day on the Venice Boardwalk, when she raised her face, covered in sugary melting milk, I did not doubt she was my daughter. She smiled, showing her sticky gums. Clearly, ice cream was best thing she had ever tasted.
For over 35 years, I’ve taught creative writing to college students. For at least the last 30, I have tried to convince them to write a book about ice cream. I always talk up the other books about food, ones that tell the history of salt or milk or even sliced white bread. As a model, I always hold up my dog-eared copy of John McPhee’s classic Oranges. I try to get them to envision the book proposal, how they could ask for an advance that would pay for the necessary research: a trip around the world eating ice cream. No one has ever taken me up on it. At least so far. Decades have passed—and still no Ice Cream: The Book.
Now I am sitting under coronavirus lockdown in Montevideo, Uruguay, where I came to spend a semester working on an anthology of Uruguayan women poets. I cannot travel even as far as one of the local heladerías because they are all closed. But when I wake up in the quiet quarantine night—as I do—or look out the window at the empty quarantine streets from my 7th floor apartment windows—as I do—I find myself thinking longingly about ice cream. A dish. A cone. A novelty treat. A whole half gallon of something chosen because no one else in the house likes that flavor, so it will be all mine. Looking out the window tonight, I promise myself that when I go to the supermarket on Friday for my weekly shopping trip, I will get ice cream. I make this promise on Saturday which means I have six whole ice creamless days to wait. At that moment, Friday seems as distant as dreaming that the moon over Montevideo is a bowl of vanilla ice cream that I can reach with my spoon. Or does the moon look more like chocolate chip?
Sitting in my office at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, when I pitch the idea of writing a book on ice cream to students, I know where the story should start—just a short stroll away across campus to Babcock Hall. There you can watch ice cream being made with milk from the university’s cows, college educated cows, the joke goes. Babcock was Dr. Steven Babcock, a university researcher who in 1890 invented a centrifuge for the first reliable test of butterfat content in milk. This put an end to watered milk and helped make Wisconsin into the Dairy State—a claim still made on every license plate. His centrifuge is on display in the lobby of Babcock Hall. More importantly, Babcock Hall is the home of the Dairy Short Course, where for 130 years students from around the world have come to study how to make cheese, butter—and, of course, ice cream.
We often went there when my kids were small and would look down through big plate glass windows at a class making ice cream using Babcock Hall’s ice cream machine which yearly cranks out about seventy-five thousand gallons of various flavors. These run from the most traditional, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, to the oddly disappointing—peanut butter and jelly—and the outright experimental. The program always develops and tests new flavors. Union Utopia, named for the Memorial Student Union where most of the scoops are purchased and eaten, has swirls of caramel, fudge, and peanut butter in vanilla ice cream. I remember eating a cone of the short lived On, Wisconsin!, a cheesecake-flavored ice cream with a dark chocolate swirl and chocolate-covered cranberries inspired by UW-Madison’s famous fight song. A yes from me for the chocolate covered cranberries, a no for the cheese-cake texture and flavor.
There was also In the Dark, chocolate ice cream with a malt flavor with pecans, fudge, chocolate chips, and brownie pieces, created and named for the annual Wisconsin Film Festival and a thoroughly odd IceCube’s Blue Neutrino, vanilla ice cream with brown candies representing neutrino detectors, blue ice cream representing ice, and marshmallow swirl representing the streaking neutrinos, which was named after the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. This flavor surely wins the most scientific ice cream award.
Famous campus folks get a flavor named after them. The 1988 Badger head football coach Paul Chryst got Chocolate Chryst, chocolate ice cream with Rice Krispie pieces and a cream cheese swirl. I’m glad to have missed that one. Now there is Berry Alvarez, ice cream with strawberries, raspberries, and a blueberry ribbon, named for current head of UW athletics and former football coach Barry Alvarez. Strawbiddy Swirl was available while chancellor Biddy Martin, a casualty of a political car crash with then Republican governor Scott Walker, was still on campus. The current chancellor Rebecca (Becky) Blank has her own flavor, Bec-Key Lime Pie. And then there was Morgridge Medley, vanilla ice cream, butterscotch and fudge swirl, brownies, and pecans, created to celebrate a one-hundred million dollar gift from alums John and Tashia Morgridge, proving ice cream is the perfect thank-you note.
My son Max’s favorite flavor is mint chocolate chip. My daughter Magda’s is chocolate peanut butter, two of the flavors always on any top ten alumni or student ranking of Babcock Hall flavors, though they are flavors that are widely available elsewhere. My favorite, also always on the top ten list, is Orange Custard Chocolate Chip, a Babcock Hall-only specialty. When I mention it to visitors touring campus, I have come to expect a wrinkled nose, a slightly appalled expression, even an occasional barely stifled, Ugh. Trust me, I always say, it is delicious. Orange Custard Chocolate Chip is not orange sherbet, but orange ice cream, blending the creamy, dreamy, nostalgic notes of a Creamsicle with shards of dark, ice hard chocolate. I can close my eyes and imagine sitting on the Memorial Union Terrace which curves into Lake Mendota. All summer, people sit by the water and drink beer, another great Wisconsin product, and eat ice cream, watching a sailboat with a black and white cow-spotted hull—I swear this is true—sail by.
Except, of course, right now the Union is closed. So is Babcock Hall and the rest of the university. Wisconsin is in lockdown, or what the current governor in his polite midwestern way calls “Safer At Home.” No one is making or eating orange custard chocolate chip ice cream. Well, maybe they are eating it. If I were home in Wisconsin, I think I would have quickly hoarded enough in my chest freezer to get me through a quarantined spring and summer. Enough to eat if I got sick. Enough, maybe, to help me recover.
When I teach students how to write creative nonfiction, we always do a collective essay based on the opening chapter of John McPhee’s classic Oranges. Except ours is “Forks.” I send them to the library to find odd facts about forks, with extra credit for a fact no one else brings in. No googling. Then we arrange them in rapid-fire paragraphs using McPhee-esque orders I have taken to calling: Forks Through History, Forks Around the World, and my favorite, Forking Big Lists. But I can’t actually go to a library right now because they are all closed. The Biblioteca Nacional de Uruguay even has chains and padlocks on its huge double doors. So, forgive me, former students, for googling “history of ice cream.” I want to start at the beginning. The BBC Newsround says, “An ice-cream-like food was first eaten in China in 618-97 AD. King Tang of Shang, had 94 ice men who helped to make a dish of buffalo milk, flour and camphor.”
Hmm, no. Ice-cream-like food is not ice cream. Let’s try again, “The explorer, Marco Polo (1254-1324), is believed to have seen ice-creams being made during his trip to China and introduced them to Italy.” Okay, BBC, but “is believed to have seen” is pretty vague and Marco Polo gets credited with bringing everything—pasta!—from China to Italy. So maybe we should trust the International Dairy Foods Association: “‘Cream Ice,’ as it was called, appeared regularly at the table of Charles I during the 17th century. France was introduced to similar frozen desserts in 1553 by the Italian Catherine de Medici when she became the wife of Henry II of France. It wasn’t until 1660 that ice cream was made available to the general public. The Sicilian Procopio introduced a recipe blending milk, cream, butter and eggs at Café Procope, the first café in Paris.”
Well, maybe. Probably even. But the only history of ice cream I can swear is true is one that starts with me. I was born in France, but as a child I never had a chance to eat ice cream in Café Procope, which claims to be the oldest café in the world and is still there in the 6th arrondisement. I don’t remember eating ice cream in France at all. My first memory of ice cream is after we moved to America. I remember eating it at Howard Johnson’s, under that bright orange roof that could once be found in every corner of America. There were over a thousand Howard Johnson’s restaurants, each one advertising 28 Flavors of ice cream: Banana, Black Raspberry, Burgundy Cherry, Butter Pecan, Buttercrunch, Butterscotch, Caramel Fudge, Chocolate, Chocolate Chip, Coconut, Coffee, Frozen Pudding, Fruit Salad, Fudge Ripple, Lemon Stick, Macaroon, Maple Walnut, Mocha Chip, Orange-Pineapple, Peach, Peanut Brittle, Pecan Brittle, Peppermint Stick, Pineapple, Pistachio, Strawberry, Strawberry Ripple and Vanilla.
My choice was Peppermint Stick. After our family dinner there—fried clams for my parents and a hot dog for me—the ice cream arrived in a tulip-shaped sundae glass set on a white china plate. I remember eating the pink, minty ice cream and carefully picking out each shard of actual peppermint stick with my spoon and setting it aside on the saucer. Then, after the spoon reached the very bottom of the dish, I ate the candy. Piece by piece. The ice cream was sweet. The candy, pure sugar.
The very last Howard Johnson’s, of the thousand plus, stands in Lake George, New York. I can see a photo of it online. Read the Yelp reviews (only two stars). Even if there were not a pandemic, even if it were possible to travel to Lake George, in the name of ice cream research, I am not sure I would want to touch the perfection of that first peppermint-flavored ice cream memory.
Okay, the more I write, I confess, the more I really, really want ice cream. This essay is taking a while, but it is still only Tuesday, three more days until I get to go outside and go grocery shopping. Here in Uruguay, in ordinary, non-locked down times, I could go to the nearest heladaría and chose from Chocolate, Chocolate Amargo (bitter chocolate), Chocolate Almendrado (with almonds), Chocolate Split, Chocolate Rocher (with crushed chocolate-hazelnut Ferrero Rocher bon bons), Sambayón (which tastes for all the world like eggnog to me though Wikipedia says it is “is a dessert traditionally made with egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine), Sambayón con Cerezas (with cherries), Crema (yep, cream), Crema Rusa (think White Russians), Crema de Maracuyá (passionfruit), Crema del Cielo (I no idea what “cream of sky” tastes like but I imagine it’s blue), Crema de Óreo (that international favorite—cookies and cream), Nutella, Pistacho, Lemon Pie, Menta Granizada (mint chip, which is Max’s favorite ice cream), Frutilla (strawberries), Frutilla a la Panna (and cream), Frambuesa (raspberry), Frutos del Bosque (which is really mixed berry so the “of the forest” is more poetry than fact), Cereza y Durazno (cherry and peach), Banana Split, Coco (nut), Crema de Baileys (as in Irish Cream), and Chicle (not sure if this is just chewing-gum flavored ice cream or if it has gum balls in it that you can save up and chew).
And because this is Uruguay, where dulce de leche—a sweet made from slowly cooking milk and sugar together until it caramelizes—is an obsession, there are over a dozen variations on that flavor: double dulce de leche, chocolate, coconut or Banana with ribbons of ulce de leche, dulce de leche with chocolate chips or nuts, dulce de leche with ribbons of more dulce de leche, Even Abachoc, which is the flavor of an alfajor, a cookie filled with dulce de leche and covered in chocolate—think Moon Pie but with dulce de leche instead of marshmallow inside—with bits of alfajores in it. If I were there, right now, I would get one of dulce de leche ice creams—because I am in Uruguay—and because I am in Uruguay, maybe dulce de leche with ribbons of more dulce de leche. Max, of course, would get mint chocolate chip.
When I have gone to Babcock Hall in recent years, most of the Dairy Short Course students learning to make ice cream have been Chinese, a clear sign of the increasing interest in dairy there. According to a 2019 survey by Mintel’s China Report, 49% of Chinese say they like to eat dessert after a meal and of those, 61% say they prefer ice cream with 69% saying they are interested in new flavors. But wherever the students are from, their home is the Dairy Short Course Dorm, just a short walk away. Between courses or when the dorm is not full, campus visitors can stay there. For years, I put all the information for the Dairy Short Course dorms on a sheet of temporary housing information for the writers who had been awarded a Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing Fellowship, a year of support for writers working on a first or second book. I was the institute’s director and I listed the Dairy Short Course Dorm on their welcome information as the cheapest place to stay when coming to town to look for an apartment. I seem to remember it was only $9 a night, but you had to bring your own towels. In all the years I was the director, only one fellow actually stayed there, Anthony Doerr. What can I say?—he went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel All the Light We Cannot See. I am not claiming a direct connection between a prize-winning book and Babcock Hall ice cream, or even our fellowship, but I emailed Tony anyway to ask him his favorite ice cream. He answered, “It was, is and always will be Mint Chocolate Chip.” A flavor which, of course, they do make at Babcock Hall. And a choice Max would approve.
I also asked my Facebook friends what their favorite flavor was as a child and the answers included grape nut (apparently a New England thing), Butter Pecan (my mother’s favorite), Bubble Gum (with the added note that it was blue), Rocky Road, Panda Paws (vanilla with chocolate swirl and peanut butter chunks), Chocolate, Chocolate Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Peanut Butter (Magda’s Babcock Hall favorite), Cherry Garcia, one strong vote for Coconut (with the addendum “Coconut Bliss, Coconut Explosion, depending on the maker but basically, an Almond Joy flavored ice cream”), Strawberry and, of course, Vanilla.
When I was ten we moved to Cocoa, Florida, a town without a Howard Johnson’s or peppermint stick ice cream. But one afternoon, my mother dropped my sister and me off at the movie theater with money to get ice cream next door after the show. The ice cream shop was owned by the same local cop who would later give the anti-drug lectures in our junior high school (holding up a tiny bottle and telling us it held enough LSD to get all of us high, a tempting offer). After a lot of thought, I got a cone of tangerine sherbet. Sherbet is not sorbet. It is fruit ice cream and clearly this foreshadows my attachment to Babcock Hall Orange Custard Chocolate Chip. This tangerine sherbet tasted like pure Florida, like the tangerines in the grove growing behind my house. Until I had my first cone of tangerine sherbet, I was a Yankee, a carpet bagger, a pale kid newly arrived in the Sunshine Sate. After that, I ran barefoot and learned to swim like a dolphin. Tangerine sherbet was pure sunshine in a cone.
The adult choices of my friends included many of the same beloved childhood flavors, including vanilla (always a bit of a brave confession for a grown-up), but with more adventurous choices sprinkled green tea, sage, lemon-basil, watermelon-basil and even absinthe sorbet, lots of salted chocolate, coffee and caramel. But a surprising number of people echoed Tony Doerr and Max. Mint Chocolate Chip then. Mint Chocolate Chip now. Mint Chocolate Chip forever. Only one friend wrote: Not Mint. Not Ever.
The other way that McPhee arranges his paragraphs about oranges, and I make my students arrange our group essay about forks, is Around the World. I scroll through the many lists online of ice cream by country, and I see there is a popular ice cream flavor in New Zealand called hokey pokey, a vanilla ice cream with small chunks of honey comb crisp, which I have to say makes me want to visit New Zealand more than watching Lord of the Rings did. In Greece, there is also a chewier-than-usual ice cream called pagoto kaimaki that uses gum mastic. It has pine sap flavor, but then so does ouzo which I love, so Greece would definitely be on a post-pandemic ice cream tour. In Sweden, they love black licorice so much they even put in ice cream. Their sweet licorice is lakrit and the salty version saltlakrit. I love licorice. I have even had licorice ice cream, though not in Sweden, which I have never had the chance to visit. I thought it was great. Downside: it was black and turned my teeth a rather scary grey. I have never been to the Philippines either, but a Filipino friend fed me ube ice cream made from that purple sweet potato, and it was both delicious—reminding me a bit of sweet potato pie—and gloriously, unashamedly purple. In Germany, a favorite is spaghettieis, vanilla ice cream extruded through a Spätzle press or potato ricer so it looks like spaghetti and is topped with strawberries (standing in for tomato sauce) and with coconut flakes, grated almonds, or white chocolate shavings (for the parmesan cheese). I loved Spaghettieis when I lived in Germany in the 1980s and still do. Think of it as a strawberry sundae with the special effects thrown in for fun!
Looking at any list of ice creams by country, I see it comes back to what I would like to eat. Or have eaten. To my own ice cream loving tongue. The lists make me want to eat ice cream. Even though it is still only Wednesday and I can’t buy ice cream for two more days, they make me want to travel. Even though no one in this world has any idea right now when that will be possible again.
But I have traveled. I can sit looking out my window and remember the ice cream in I ate in Istanbul, in the famous old sweet shop Hafiz Mustafa 1864, in the Sultanahmet neighborhood close to the Blue Mosque. You enter the shop through a marble arch, and there are counters selling Turkish delight, baklava or kadayif with pistachios or almonds or with chocolate to take home, but also an exquisite café where the waiter brings you a menu as heavy as a volume of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, each page glossy with photos. You sit on padded seats around a glass topped table, flipping past the selections while your waiter brings you small cups of scented tea. I asked for the pistachio baklava, which comes in perfect, green, nut filled rolls, with an order of Turkish pistachio ice cream or dondurma on top. Dondurma is made with cream, whipped cream, salep (the powdered tuber of a purple orchid), mastic, and sugar. Dondurma is rich (all that cream) and harder than other ice cream with a thick, almost chewy texture. It is usually cut with a butcher knife and it arrived at my table resting gently on top of my baklava, sprinkled with yet more pistachios. I ate it with a knife and a special ice cream fork (an entry for the Forking Great List!).
Hafiz Mustafa 1864 is open twenty-four hours a day, and we were there around midnight. At the tables around us were businessmen, couples dating, a group of middle-aged women out for a birthday, a Finnish couple carefully photographing each item they ordered, and several tables of Saudi women covered from head to toe in black, carefully holding their forks with one black gloved hand while lifting their veils with the other for each delicate, delicious bite.
Everyone was talking, laughing, comparing desserts. It reminded me of an upscale cocktail bar, one where all my friends would be comparing their artisanal cocktails. Since I don’t drink, I remember thinking that I preferred this, that I wished there were late night ice cream cafes in all the cities of the world.
I have eaten ice cream in much less luxurious settings. I remember eating a Bambino, an ice cream on a stick that in spite of its Italian name is totally Polish, a communist era treat still made by the dairy co-operative Jogo in Łódź. It came in a rough paper wrapper and was pink on the outside and white on the inside, though I don’t remember the two colors of ice cream tasting anything other than identical, cold and sweet. I bought it from a woman selling them from a cardboard box on a corner, and I stood on a cold October street in Warsaw, eating it from one mittened hand. Poland was under Martial Law and there were long lines at the stores as people waited for hours for their chance to buy anything, even a loaf of bread. But there were also always sudden surprises. When they went out of their apartments, my Polish friends always carried a shopping bag and all the cash they had just in case a store suddenly had chickens or cheese or dishes or fabric. I remember seeing a man walking down the street with a dozen rolls of toilet paper, nearly impossible to find at the time, threaded on a broom handle. There were no ice cream shops or fast food restaurants, or even restaurants. So at that moment, the Bambino I was eating seemed to have fallen from heaven, and that made it delicious. When it is Friday and I finally get to buy my ice cream here, I hope it will taste that good!
In addition to their favorite flavors, I also asked my Facebook friends for their most memorable ice cream experiences. I was surprised how often they mentioned eating gelato in Italy. In Rome near the Trevi Fountain, in Florence by the Arno, and Venice by the Grand Canal. My friend Judith Claire Mitchell wrote, “My best ice cream experience was a stunning gelato place on Ile Saint-Louis in Paris that Don and I went to after we got engaged in the Parc du Bagatelle. I had a very dark chocolate and very vanilla vanilla combo and the prettiest ring on my finger and it was Paris.”
So many of my friends remembered vividly eating their first pistachio, fior di latte, nocciola (hazelnut) or baccio (chocolate hazelnut) gelato, sometimes a carefully sculpted swirl on a cone of two or three flavors. When I think of gelato, I think of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the silent film festival I go to every year in October north of Venice in Pordenone. It is an amazing event, eight days of silent films from nearly every country in the world. Seven hundred devoted scholars and fans watch them, almost without stop from nine in the morning until after well after midnight. This would not be possible without gelato. The gelataria across from the Teatro Verdi in Pordenone opens early and stays open late for the festival, though there are another half dozen gelatarias in walking distance of the theater.
Each day of the festival, I check in with friends. What flavors have you had? Some are seasonal, zucca (pumpkin), cachi (persimmon), fico (fig), pera (pear). Others just unusual. It is where I had the licorice, liquirizia, that turned my teeth grey. Max, when he went with us one year, fell in love with the mint (no chips alas) that he said tasted more minty than any other ice cream in the world. Like a mix, he said, of altoids and toothpaste. In 2001, when I first went to the Giornate, and for several years after, the festival was temporarily held in the nearby, smaller town of Sacile while a new Teatro Verde was built in Pordenone.
Sacile had an amazing gelataria where the gelato maker was really an artist. No bright blue Puffo (Smurf) flavor for him. He loved working with seasonal flavors and pushing against the limits— even breaking free of them. One afternoon when my husband was taking a quick break from the movies, the owner offered him a taste of onion gelato. “An experiment,” he said. “Just trying it out.” When I tell this story or my husband tells this story, he is always, to my mind, unsatisfactorily vague.
“What did it taste like?” I ask. Everyone always asks.
“Onion,” he says.
“Was it sweet?”
“A little. It was gelato.”
“Did you like it?”
“Well, yes, but it was not something I would want to eat every day.”
I thought I might get a chance to try it myself, but the next year the Giornate moved back to Pordenone and I have not been back to Sacile, or that gelateria, since. Dan, though, continued to attract unusual gelato. Once, in Sardinia, he had celery and black pepper. I got to taste that one so I can report that it was sorbet style, no cream, and tasted exactly like celery and black pepper. At the same gelataria, I had watermelon flavor, which on a hot day in dry, sunny Sardinia was perfect. It reminded me of childhood picnics, but improved since this watermelon was not full of black seeds.
I can even think about eating ice cream in China. This year in January, our family toured the country for three weeks after Max finished off college with a semester studying Chinese in Shanghai. We ate red bean ice cream and black sesame ice cream. I found myself wondering if any of the ice cream makers had been to Wisconsin for a Dairy Short Course. What I really remember was a small cafe in a mall in Shanghai that sold ice milk topped with different fruits—mango, strawberry—and other choices as well like black sticky rice. Magda and Max shared a bowl with strawberries. I had mango on mine. The ice milk with the fruit was heavenly—light, full of the slight crunch of ice crystals, not as sweet as either the mango or the sticky rice. It felt like a treat designed to cure you, to fill you with pure happiness. We went twice at the beginning of our trip, then again at the end when we returned to Shanghai after traveling to Bejing and Nanjing.
Then we all went on to Japan, to Kanazawa, where Magda has been teaching. She took us to the old tea house district. I had been promised there would be ice cream there. Kanazawa is famous for gold leaf, having made it for centuries, and it seemed like all the shops were selling cones of vanilla ice cream with a strip of gold leaf attached to one side of the swirls. I watched people walking by, gold on their outstretched tongues, little flecks on their cheeks. “Forget it, Mom,” Magda said. “It’s just really expensive soft serve. We are getting something better.”
She took me to Chayu, an ice cream cafe where they serve exquisite round balls of artisanal ice cream inside crisp rice shells, resting on a baby soft sheet of mochi, so they look for all the world like oysters with very large ice cream pearls inside. The flavors are unique: soy sauce (which Magda and Max both said tasted like salted caramel), kabocha pumpkin, yuzu, tofu, and miso. Dan had bamboo-charcoal infused ice cream, which, like licorice, turns the tongue and teeth a definite gray. I chose kagabocha flavor, a smoky roasted tea that is a specialty of the area. It was the most amazing ice cream I had ever had, though I struggle to describe it (as Dan does with the onion gelato). I could taste the smoke, a dark tea taste stronger than green tea, a hint of caramel—but also just a touch of smoked fish which sounds a bit disturbing but made the experience a bit like the Three Course Dinner Chewing Gum in Willy Wonka, an ice cream that seemed like a whole meal.
Right now, of course, Japan is under an emergency order so neither Max nor Magda can go to the tea house district for ice cream. Italy is shut down as well. It is hard to imagine there will be a Giornate del Cinema Muto this fall and I worry about all my Italian friends. The news is full of footage of nearby Venice, eerily empty. When we left China, Shanghai closed behind us a mere four days later. We had dinner with a friend there our last night in Shanghai, and then he spent three months locked down in his apartment. But last week, I saw on the news that the mall in Shanghai where we got our milk ice and fruit is open again, and my friend is allowed out of his apartment at last. He can get take out from nearby restaurants and, I hope, ice cream. He loves music—he is a cellist—but he also loves to eat. Last night Magda told she made a mug cake in her microwave (no ovens in Japanese apartments). It was bit weird, she said, but with ice cream, it was delicious. With ice cream, everything is delicious.
Life can be delicious. Now, more than ever, we have to believe that.
Now my trip to buy a carton in just a day away, and I have started counting the hours. At the supermarket, the choices are more limited than at a heladaría, but still, I start thinking about what kind I might buy. I actually look up a list of ice cream flavors made by Conaprole, the big Uruguayan dairy cooperative. The list starts with symphonies: sinfonía de chocolate y menta, sinfonía de chocolate holandés y crema irlandés (Bailey’s Cream), sinfonía de crema tramontana (vanilla with dulce de leche and chocolate covered cookie bits), sinfonía de chocolate y naranja (chocolate and orange—this one is seriously delicious). Then there are triple flavors in one carton, starting with the universal van/ choc/ straw, and going on to samboyán (which does so tastes like eggnog), chocolate and—you guessed it—dulce de leche.
Tomorrow I will wake up, just hours from ice cream. Okay, and my other shopping too. When I was a kid, my mother let me eat ice cream for breakfast if we had some in the house. It has milk in it, she said. I don’t see how it could be worse for you than Frosted Flakes. When I was in Sicily, I was delighted to find they ate gelato in soft golden brioches for breakfast. I read an interview with the manager of Babcock Hall where he is quoted as saying he loves eating ice cream for breakfast. As it turns out, there is even an Ice Cream for Breakfast Day, celebrated the first Saturday in February, that was apparently invented on a snowy winter day in the 1960s by Florence Rappaport in Rochester, New York, to keep her children happy and distracted. Maybe in these times of families locked in their houses, Ice Cream for Breakfast Day should be a monthly or even weekly holiday. Because, honestly, everything is better with ice cream. Something sweet and sparkling with cold ready to brighten the dark corners of your day. To give you something to look forward to. Like I am looking forward to buying mine tomorrow morning.
Finally, it is Friday! I put on my obligatory face mask and walk to Ta Ta, our nearest supermarket. I wait my turn to enter. One of the things that I really dislike in this locked down world is how stressful shopping is. I loved dawdling in grocery stores, looking at all the foods, mulling over what I might want to buy. Now, every trip is as carefully plotted as a Special Forces raid. Back in Wisconsin, oh that dairy state, the ice cream aisle in my local Woodman’s supermarket is as long as a football field, but here, in Ta Ta, there is just one small cooler, which makes speed easier. I open the door and hesitate, but I know I can’t linger. I feel the presence of the woman behind me, stopped next to pasta, waiting her turn in frozen foods. I take a quick look. I choose. Dulce de leche granizada (with chocolate chips) it is!
I pay for it along with my other week’s groceries, carefully using the alcohol gel provided after I get my debit card back. And the cashier does the same. Then I walk home, happy, chanting under my breath, I scream. We scream. We all scream for ice cream. Ice cream turning screaming, even now, into screaming for joy. I am already thinking about what bowl and spoon I am going to use. How I am going to have some after lunch, then after dinner, and maybe even for breakfast and—
Dear reader, I ate it all.
And I have to tell you, it was pure ice cream heaven.
Cover image by Lama Roscu.