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Even in winter, New Englanders take ice cream seriously

By
KEN FRANCKLING, UPI Feature Writer

BOSTON -- Welcome to Boston, home of American haute ice cream.

Beantown and its suburbs sparked the sweet-tooth revolution that has people across the country plunking down more money for 'super-premium' ice creams -- those with rich, all-natural ingredients and home-made flavors.

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This gourmet trend stems from the region's historic love for the frozen dairy treat.

New Englanders gobble an average of 22.8 quarts per person annually, compared to the national average of 15.1 quarts. Those figures from the International Ice Cream Association show the six-state region leads the world in ice cream consumption.

Even in winter, ice cream is hot.

'I've been in Harvard Square in the midst of a snowstorm waiting for a light to charge, and you look around and people are eating ice cream cones,' says Gus Rancatore, owner of Toscanini's ice cream parlor in Cambridge.

Toscanini's home-made fare was dubbed 'intellectual ice cream' by some habitues because it is located near the Massachusetts Institute for Technology and several computer firms.

'The student population is probably one factor that contributes to the amount of ice cream eaten in New England,' Rancatore said. 'There are a lot of private colleges with largely affluent student bodies who can afford to, and want to, spend more money for a better product. It is a luxury product that serves itself well as a kickoff for social occasions.'

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Supermarket fare aside, New England's ice cream is diverse, flavorful, and gloriously imaginative. The demand for 'super-premium' versions created a big business that reaches upscale buyers across the country through sophisticated marketing.

Ben & Jerry's Homemade, a gourmet phenomenon based in Waterbury, Vt., has grown into a $28 million business with sales in 35 states since its founding nine years ago. The high school buddies who founded what is now the nation's third-largest maker of super-premium ice cream have approached the Soviet Union about opening an outlet in Moscow. Ben & Jerry want to expand Russian ice cream tastes beyond ordinary vanilla to their famous Heath Bar Crunch.

The super-premium trend began in 1973 when Steve Herrell, a former cab driver and high school English teacher, opened a homey little parlor on Davis Square in nearby Somerville.

He offered old-fashioned ice cream, rich and smooth, made from all-natural ingredients and fresh cream. The basic flavors were hand-cranked in the front window 8 to 10 hours a day.

He called the place Steve's Ice Cream. College students lined the block, as much for the high quality as for the custom-mixing or 'smooshing' of add-on ingredients that resulted in thousands of variations.

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Steve's offered 'Wang Wang Blues' -- blueberries smashed into vanilla; Beethoven's 'Moonlight sonata' -- granola sprinkled over mocha; and 'Boogie Woogie' -- peppermint crushed through chocolate.

Ordinary ice creams contain 50 percent or more air. A quart of Herrell's first creams, containing only 17 to 25 percent air, weighed as much as some manufacturers' half-gallons.

Carol Robbins and Herbert Wolff of Great Barrington, Mass., authors of 'The Very Best Ice Cream and Where To Find It' (Warner Books, 1985), credit Herrell with starting the craze.

'The college students discovered him. As they went back to other parts of the country, they spread the word about this incredible ice cream,' said Wolff. 'Other people soon realized they could do the same thing themselves. There are no great secrets in making ice cream, it is a matter of quality ingredients. It is the returning to homemade basics.'

New England's love affair with ice cream predates Steve Herrell by a half century.

'Ice cream is a phenomenon of the Depression,' Wolff said. 'New England dairy farmers found themselves with excess milk, which was selling at 5 cents a gallon. Ice cream was selling at 50 cents a gallon. They realized they could get 10 times the amount for it.

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'As far as variety, New England's experimentation goes back to Howard Johnson in 1925. He bought himself a drug store, bought some ice cream equipment and decided to experiment with flavors,' Wolff said.

Herrell sold his Somerville shop in 1978 to a competitor who launched a chain of Steve's. Herrell moved to Northampton, Mass., where he opened the first of four Herrell's ice cream shops.

'There is still a kind of mysteriousness to why good ice cream is so popular in New England,' Herrell said. 'It obviouisly has very little to do with climate. In the South, good ice cream is hard to find.'

'There is still a lot of market in this region for cheap ice cream. Some people still walk through our stores, look at the prices, and say 'forget it.'Those on tight budgets can't opt for it,' Herrell said.

A quart of hand-packed ice cream at Herrell's averages about $4.50, depending on weight.

Classical music announcer Robert J. Lurtsema, host of WGBH radio's 'Morning pro musica' program in Boston, has been an ice cream addict for the past 40 years.

Until Sept 12, 1986, when he went on a diet, Lurtsema says he had a 'habit' of a quart to a half-gallon a day.

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'When I began the diet, I was pretty convinced that it would scuttle the ice cream industry in this area. I've been astonished to discover it has survived in spite of that,' Lurtsema said.

'New Englanders have a knack for recognizing what is wholesome. It is the old Yankee tradition for understanding value.

'Travel anywhere else in the world and you begin to develop an appreciation for just how fussy New Englanders are. There can't be anywhere else in the world that has as rich a diversity, and as much on the upper end of the scale. Bart's, Herrell's, Ben & Jerry's, Emack and Bolio's -- they don't stint on gourmet ingredients,' Lurtsema said.

The portly broadcaster calls Herrell 'Mr. Ice Cream for the region.' 'His practice of making sure whatever the flavor was, you knew it even with your eyes closed, made all of the difference.'

Lurtsema says he finds it harder to resist ice cream than cigarettes, which he quit cold turkey in 1983.

'There is an inner struggle every time I go by a gourmet shop,' he said. 'Every once in a while, I have a lapse in resolve, and then I have to pull myself back on track again.'

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Robbins and Wolff rate New England and northern California the nation's two prime centers for quality ice cream.

'We cannot account for the palate of the New England people, but they seem to have a better one than people in the Midwest. People in the Midwest don't go for the high-butterfat, all-natural flavors. And in the Midwest, they put something on top of the ice cream. For some reason, people in New England like their ice cream without toppings,' Robbins said.

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