The tao of mix-ins: A heterogeneous ice cream manifesto

The author in a Tuareg headdress. Courtesy photo.

The author in a Tuareg headdress. Courtesy photo.

By Alan Dean Foster

Ice cream.

There. Feel better already, don’t you?

It’s strange how just reading certain words can give us a little endorphin boost. You don’t even have to hear them spoken out loud. Food is especially effective this way. Watch.

Fried Chicken. Chocolate. Brussels Sprouts.

Uh-oh. Killed the mood with that last one.

But seriously, ice cream. Even if you can’t eat dairy, there’s soy ice cream, ice cream made with coconut milk, and other variants that allow for it to be degustatorily all-inclusive. Down the line, of course, there’s sorbet, fruit popsicles, Italian ices, and more. But this is about ice cream. Specifically, what is currently defined as artisanal ice cream. Because this paper is about science and art, right?

I’m going to leave the “science” of ice cream aside. Maybe for another column. Can’t write too much about ice cream, because every time I type the word, there’s that little endorphin jolt again.

While history is full of references to what we would call sherbets, or flavored ices, what we today call ice cream first came to the fore in Italy in the 17th century. Italians, and everybody else, have been monkeying with the process and ingredients ever since. It’s hard to think of another popular food that has been subject to so many variations. You can buy ice cream in every imaginable (and some unimaginable) flavor. This makes artisanal ice cream makers hard-pressed to come up with new and intriguing tastes. Note that I said intriguing, not necessarily inviting. For all I know, someone has probably put together a few batches of Brussels sprouts ice cream. Try not to contemplate.

Glacial menu

A menu from the sorbeteria Glacial in Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Alan Dean Foster.

I once spent a few days in Manaus, Brazil. Manaus is the biggest city in the Amazon, located where the river of the same name joins its major tributary the Rio Negro, and it lies pretty much smack in the middle of endless rainforest. This results in a climate where both the temperature and the humidity seem like they both climb beyond 100. While perspiring uncontrollably in such surroundings, if someone says, “I know a great place for ice cream”, you’re prepared to sell blood for the location.

In Portuguese, an ice cream parlor is called a sorbeteria. Manaus has a chain of them called Glacial, and very handsome establishments they are, too. What’s fascinating is that once you get past the usual familiar flavors, all sorts of tropical ingredients you never heard of crop up on the menu. By now everyone has heard of Açai, but I first encountered it (purple ice cream!) in a Glacial sorbeteria in Manaus. Also tapareba and cupuraçu. When was the last time your tongue encountered an entirely new flavor? After that, I was much less interested in Manaus’ famous opera house or natural history museum. All I wanted to do was sit in one of Glacial’s elegant air-conditioned parlors and explore exotic ice creams.

Which brings me to the point of this month’s bit of doggerel: What passes for artisanal ice creams here in the U.S. these days is often disappointing. With great fanfare and innumerable articles in magazines and newspapers, one new ice cream maker after another is touted as having the latest, the greatest, the thickest, the richest, and the most inventive ice creams. And often that’s true — provided one visits the small shop where said ice cream is made. Try to find it duplicated and sold in bulk at your local supermarket, however, and you’re apt to be sorely disappointed.

When you pay five or six or more bucks for a pint of “artisanal” ice cream, get home, stick it in the freezer, anticipate, pull it out, break all your fingernails doing your best Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation in the exhausting ritual that involves prying off the top (Why can’t they invent an ice cream pint container that opens without requiring the application of the Jaws of Life?), and start digging away with your spoon, you expect the contents to reflect the list of ingredients on the side. Sadly, all too often it’s a borderline sham.

I’ve tried and been disappointed by too many expensive pints to think this is just coincidence. It’s either bad manufacturing, poor quality control, indifference, or a deliberate attempt to scam the buying public. Contemplate a peppermint stick-chocolate chunk-cherry flavor in a vanilla base. What you too frequently get is vanilla ice cream with a few fragments of peppermint stick, shaved chocolate, and specks of cherry.

I’m talking mix-ins here, folks. Mix-ins are serious business in the ice cream world. They’re what made Ben & Jerry’s a household name. B&J continue to hold up their end of the bargain, but they’re not what we mean when we refer to artisanal ice creams. That definition is reserved for the most exclusive brands, who ought to know better when it comes to mix-ins. If there’s anything I hate about these new so-called artisanals, it’s paying through the nose for a complex, intriguing mix that is devoid of — mix.

The most reliable brand I’ve found so far in the supermarket in regards to mix-ins is Graeter’s. This is a company that understands the meaning, the soul, of “chocolate chip.” Despite repeated disappointments I keep trying, and hoping, to find another store-sold brand to match Graeter’s consistently high level.

Just don’t mix in any vegetables.

*****

Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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