Mike Wilson: Ice cream hacks from a Baptist church upbringing

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, June 26, 2024

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Yes, it is incredibly warm outside. Some might even call it hot. As the thermometer creeps up toward triple digits, It’s the perfect time to think about ice cream. Or, to be honest, literally anything cold. 

One of my earliest memories is dutifully sitting atop a cold, damp folded towel on top of the ice cream maker while Granddaddy turned the handle ever more slowly. This was years before I made my way to Farmville. I wonder now if my weight was actually needed to hold the device in place, but at the time I was certain it was my own contribution to the production that yielded the magnificent result: homemade vanilla with chunks of ripe local peaches.

I usually got to lick the paddles after they had been scraped, and I would occasionally sneak a piece of rock salt, too. Surely my addiction started there…

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My grandmother discovered a “hack” (to use modern parlance) for orange sherbet that involved emptying seven 10-ounce Orange Crushes into the freezer along with a can of condensed milk. One side benefit was that the Piggly Wiggly only sold sodas in six-packs of returnable bottles, so there were five left over for me and my sisters to consume. Whenever she took us downtown in Jackson, we would stop at Frank’s Dollhouse, where soft serve vanilla cones cost a nickel. One flavor, one size: we didn’t mind at all.

One of the reasons I am thankful for my rearing in the Baptist church is the periodic ice cream picnics, for which every family brought their own homemade version to the church grounds. I prided myself on my deep democratic sense: I made sure I tried a bit from every single family.

Ice cream has lived at the top of our list of grocery staples for almost half a century now. When our budget was limited, we nonetheless brought home a gallon bucket of generic Neapolitan as the foundation of our diet. Rare is the day that we don’t enjoy a scoop or two in the evening, though I find myself compelled to turn toward the ‘no sugar added’ varieties of late. My children and grandkids have obviously inherited the IC gene as well.

One day recently when I went to pick up our pre-schooler, she suggested a detour to Dairy Queen on the way home. After she methodically consumed her small twist cone–including peeling off the paper to finish the last crumb– she announced her decision that this stop should become a tradition whenever I come to get her. I couldn’t argue.

We were out in Dayton one summer when her older cousin Sydney, around three, was invited to a birthday party that featured a sundae bar and a bouncy castle. Since she loved both, it seemed logical to multitask. I caught her at the top of the ramp entering the attraction with her hot fudge creation carefully cradled so as not to lose any en route.

Traveling through rural Virginia, we once spied a Dairy Queen and pulled over. Vanessa, our eldest, asked the employee — a trainee, we later realized — for a large cup of vanilla. The worker grabbed a 32 ounce soda cup and proceeded to fill it with ice cream. It wasn’t easy to finish, but Vanessa understood well our family motto: “No Ice Cream Left Behind.”

We took along our youngest– then 12–on a 25th anniversary trip to France and Italy, where daily stops for gelato were a priority almost as high as taking in history and culture. We found ourselves at Vivoli, the most famous gelateria in Florence, where obstinate nationalistic pride prevents offering a menu in English. My wife is an inveterate sampler of gelato and ice cream who cannot resist when she spies a cup of little sample spoons on a counter. Our first clue to the no-nonsense demeanor of this place was a refusal to provide her a sample of coconut: “Signora, cocco e cocco” (Ma’am, coconut is coconut.) She and I ordered, and then Cristina asked for what seemed to be a sampler of six flavors. The server returned with a sort of insulated egg carton that weighed at least three pounds; turns out it was the large family take-home pack. So there we were with a hotel room without a freezer. Time to trot out the family motto again.

Our middle daughter Marisa decided to tour Italy with a friend before starting her junior year in London and wound up at the same gelateria. You should understand that this place is very crowded day and night and the personnel have a low tolerance for indecision, not unlike the famous Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame. The poor girl stared nervously at the long list of flavors as she stood in line, and when her turn finally came she blurted out “melone,” which she assumed to be watermelon. I could have told her it was cantaloupe, dead last on her list of fruits. Actually, not even on the list. Sad.

As the family elder, I always angle to be the first to introduce ice cream to our new babies once they come of age. I suspect, though, that there is occasionally some chicanery out there. Why else would the kids’ eyes gleam when they see that spoon coming? Or is it instinct? The next time my family is gathered around the Thanksgiving table and we take turns telling what we are thankful for, I am going to say “freezers.”