Sunday, July 18, 2010

A SUBTLE ART



     Ice cream, especially in this summer of awful heat, is to adults the childhood reminder that there are Band-Aids when needed. For we too get boo boos, and a treat like we had as kids not only satisfies the palate but nurtures the soul in whatever hurt there is. Sort of like having grandma with you forever.

I am partial to butter pecan but will take coffee, strawberry and a classic -- half-vanilla, half-chocolate. Don't cotton to the cheap stuff, though, and I don't judge by price alone. "Cheap" can mean ice cream with a fancy name but bearing false promise, like a suitor who dresses well and flashes a thick wallet but who is inadequate as good, engaging company.

With ice cream a rarely but deliciously visited friend, reserve it for special need or special fun. For such sacrifice, I want to taste creaminess, flavor and richness. Keep the gum additives on the shelf, use fresh ingredients. The manufacturer can still make money keeping to a high standard -- witness those ice creams that sell well at reasonable price.

There are ice cream favorites for you and me, but once there was a type that is now rare to find, which even then was costlier but which always guaranteed the best tasting experience. And that was hard-packed ice cream.

Sold from old-fashioned fountain service stores -- those downtown, hometown beauties with long marble counters and a soda jerk behind who mixed seltzer and flavor to give you a drink -- hard-packed ice cream was the same lovely variety you enjoyed in a cup or cone at the counter.

Taken from large tubs in a waist-level freezer, this ice cream was so hard that it didn't melt on the way home. It took expertise and strength to scoop out the ice cream, using a stainless-steel paddle and digging down hard, as if mining coal.

The paddle was deliberately shaped so as to slide against the tub wall and slice off the eagerly awaited dessert. The ice cream would be packed, tightly, if done right, into a white cardboard container shaped like a large version of the ones used in delicatessens for take-out potato salad.
Each container had a metal fold-up handle for carrying.

The best ice cream packers would paddle a bit extra onto the top of the container, which when finished, should have had a mound on top. The box top would not close, and waxed paper would instead be stuck to the ice cream.

No ice cream tasted so wonderful as hard-packed, no matter what the flavor. If my dad brought this treat home, we knew either the national economy was picking up or his horse had come in (which can be synonymous).

Today, you might be able to locate hard-packed ice cream somewhere, but even if you do, it probably won't come from a soda fountain, the jerk doing double duty as the experienced and giving packer. And maybe it would not taste the same, either.

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