Two little boys sitting on the steps of a building older than time itself, contentedly, joyfully licking ice cream cones. Una pallina di crema, one scoop of vanilla, the younger one would always demand, fearful of trying any other flavor. The elder was always more adventurous, more daring, more gourmand. Chocolate, maybe strawberry… he would even be the one to try the deep blue Smurf flavor.
We had driven to Mantua for an adventure of discovery, a voyage of culture and learning. We were living in Italy and wanted to open our little boys’ eyes to a world of wonder, knowledge and art. And culinary pleasures. The morning had been spent at the Palazzo Te, wandering from magnificent room to magnificent room, ogling the ornate frescos and paintings, wondering at the giants and grotesques tumbling from huge swathes of smoke and clouds, falling from the sky in the Sala dei Giganti, the Olympian banquets on the walls and ceilings of the Sala di Psiche. Noses mere inches from the walls, we spied graffiti, names scratched into the soft stone of the walls, visitors who walked these same floors, stood awed in front of the same images centuries ago.
To reward their patience, the interest and happy excitement of two tiny little boys, ice creams were called for. Sitting on the steps in the courtyard of some palace or church or other, they happily licked the dripping ice cream before it could slide down the side of the cone, onto hands. Photographs capture the moment, the glee, of those two little boys eating ice cream: two little boys bundled up in winter coats yet still enjoying a cornetto di gelato.
We were an ice cream family. Our freezer was always well stocked with gallon rectangles of store-bought ice cream, an array of flavors to suit each one of us: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, Neapolitan – of which I would only eat the chocolate and vanilla stripes, leaving the strawberry for my younger brother - and Checkerboard. A boxes of cones, sugar cones and waffle cones, often tinted a rainbow of colors, were stacked under the counter in the cabinet closest to the refrigerator. For those of us who preferred their ice cream sundae style, served up in a dish, there was always a tub or two of whipped topping in the freezer nestled in the frost next to the ice cream, jars of chocolate sauce, colored sprinkles and whatever our hearts desired.
Ice cream was never off limits. We were happy eaters all, gobbling up fruits and vegetables with pleasure, so no reigns were put on our snacktimes. Dinner was at six each and every evening and by eight we could be found sitting together, children and parents, in front of the television, each cradling a bowl of ice cream in our laps.
Ice cream sandwiches, fruity popsicles and ice cream on a stick were the choice for after-school snacks and their presence in that freezer was constant and abundant. And how many times a week would dad pile us all in the car for a trip to Dairy Queen (Dairy Dip, dad called it, much to our delight!) for a cone or a cup? And he never failed to carry home a box of chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bars to always have on hand, his favorite. The familiar tinkling music of the beloved ice cream truck every summer afternoon had an almost spontaneous, animal effect and we would drop whatever we were up to and dash out into the street, coins clutched in expectant, eager hands.
Dad bought an ice cream maker when I was in grade school. I have only vague memories of us sitting on the driveway in front of the house, churning ice cream. I don’t remember much; there may have been vanilla and peach, maybe strawberry. But I do remember the chocolate ice cream that came out of that machine The flavor haunts me to this day, and, like a Pavlovian reflex, just pulling up the memory makes my mouth water. Maybe it was the rock salt that we had to pack around the central canister, but the chocolate ice cream, light and icy, had a salty undertone that I simply loved! To this day, I yearn that lightly chocolate flavor with that hint of salt.
Gallon blocks of ice cream, open the container and slip it into one of those Tupperware containers (slide the “drawer” out, cut off a slice, slide the “drawer” back in). Open the cardboard box flat, place it on the kitchen floor, stand on either edge to keep it in place and call the dog.
I sit on the sofa next to my mother night after night eating bowls of coffee ice cream. Like her mother before her, the women of our family seem to be able to live solely on coffee ice cream as they age. I sit up a little straighter, as straight as her sunken sofa allows, next to her tiny, hunched body, my old mom. I have scooped out a bit of cappuccino swirl into a mug and spoon it sparingly into my mouth, making the tiny bit that I allow myself last as long as possible. She, on the other hand, cradles the carton in her lap and spoons it up until sated, replacing the carton back into the freezer for tomorrow night.
I share the joys of discovery with my young son as he is introduced to the pleasures of an old-fashioned ice cream sandwich. And he is hooked. Nothing like this in his European home, creamy, smooth vanilla ice cream sandwiched in between thin chocolate cookies. He comes to see the ice cream sandwich, nothing fancy, no twists and turns on the classic, as representative of everything American, and he would clamor for one every single day we were there.
Snow cones and soft serve, smooth swirls of sweet, whipped, pastel confection, light as air, pretty as a debutante in an eddy of tulle and silk; Creamsicles and fudgsicles, hand-churned buckets studded with fresh fruit, pops on sticks.
Raspberry ripple, fudge swirl, chocolate chip, rocky road, filled with surprises!
Floats, sodas and milkshakes, egg creams and smoothies, liquid ice cream.
The ice cream of my childhood, my youth, ice cream that I offer my sons as a bit of their American heritage, special treats when home.
Brain freeze! Da Bombe!
College days, evening outings always included a trip to Hillary’s Ice Cream in University City on the edge of campus. Bright lights, a wide, brilliant, shiny expanse with a mile-long counter displaying a dizzying choice of flavors. How to choose? Stay safe, choose coffee, coconut or chocolate. Mix ins? All the rage! M & M’s or chopped nuts or marshmallows and always topped with jimmies.
Milan, a new tradition with my sons. Little hands held tightly in mine, we make our way to Piazza Piemonte where my favorite gelateria stood, warm and dim. Freshly churned gelati, vaniglia for one, stracciatella for the other, caffè for mom, so pure that it would begin to melt as soon as we stepped out of the shop. Or wander a little further for a choice, gelato for the little one, dairy-free for the elder, granità per la mamma, always granità in the sweltering hot days of an Italian summer.
French crème glacée… sitting in the yard behind their grandparents’ house, a gaggle of little boys, all arms and legs, squiggly and wild, each clamoring for a cornet or an Eskimo or a slice of ice cream cake. Always from a box, brought home from the supermarket, but a happy ending to an afternoon spent digging in grandpère’s garden and splashing in the pool.
Hand in hand, husband and I take our summer afternoon stroll. While others are enjoying a pre-dinner apératif, sipping beer or white wine on terraces outside neighborhood pubs and cafés, we know that our steps will lead us to the ice cream stand in front of the chocolate shop. A single scoop of lemon sorbet is always my choice in the hot months, a single icy scoop of lemon sorbet, the perfect round placed atop a homemade cone. He is a wilder, less predictable in his choice of flavors. Maybe he’ll ask for pistachio or almond milk. Or coconut. But he will also ask for a single scoop in a cone and together, hand in hand, we will wander away towards to continue our summer evening stroll, licking ice cream as the sun sets.
We all scream
For ice cream!
The innocence of childhood all wrapped up in a cone. Standing on the sidewalk, on the beach, in the front yard, a game of concentration before it can run down one’s arm. The magical musical notes of the ice cream truck in summer, school’s out, long days spent running barefoot through the grass, kicking a ball down the block, meeting friends in the park. Chasing that elusive ice cream truck before it disappears out of site. Pennies, nickels, dimes for a cone.
Two women in Manhattan, rushing from dinner to theater, a brisk pace down a crowded New York sidewalk. “I have to admit that I have quite the sweet tooth,” one claims, slightly embarrassed. “That’s why we’re friends,” returns the other. At that moment, they spot the Mr. Softee truck with the familiar cartoon character on the side, his froth of ice cream sitting cheerfully on top of his waffle cone head, jaunty red and white bowtie completing the look. “What do you say?” I ask, nervous that she might think I was joking, offering ice cream that may not really be ice cream. Or that I was simply just being silly.
“Oh! I love Mr. Softee!” she cries and we head towards the truck, sidle up to the window like two young schoolgirls, standing on tippy toes to place our order. “One vanilla soft serve, and one chocolate!” The exchange is made, our coins for two cones with that familiar towering eddy of cream.
Giggling, we walk away, taking mouthfuls of the ice cream, recapturing some little sliver of our youth.