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In cone or cup, made into sundaes, splits, sodas, or cookie sandwiches, ice cream is the happiest of foods. It is an emblem of carefree summer days, of a single soda shared by two people in love, of pie à la mode, picnics, birthdays, and the fourth of July. It’s also what we eat – by the pint-load – when we are down in the dumps and need unrelenting comfort.
Americans’ taste in ice cream is not regionally specific, but there are some flavors and styles of presentation found only in one area. Grape-Nuts ice cream is popular throughout northern New England (where Grape-Nuts pudding also is a tradition); coffee ice cream is a favorite in Rhode Island (where coffee milk is the official state beverage); spumoni is on the menu of tradition-minded Italian restaurants, sponge-candy ice cream is unique to Buffalo, as are lychee, flan, passion fruit, and guava ice cream to Miami’s Little Havana.
In the Midwest, turtle sundaes are a favorite. That’s vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, and caramel sauce (or sometimes butterscotch). Also in the Midwest, Wisconsin in particular, many places sell not ice cream, but custard. Custard is a frozen dessert that looks like soft-serve ice cream but is significantly creamier. With a lower overrun (pumped-in air) than most ice cream, frozen custard is dense and silk-smooth; and because it contains eggs as well as cream, it is luxuriously rich. At the best custard shops, it is made fresh and served directly from the machine that produces it.
Ice cream retains its status as insouciant fun food, but in 1960 it also became a status symbol. That is when Häagen-Dazs was created. “Häagen-Dazs” means nothing in Danish or in any other language. In fact, there isn’t even an umlaut in Danish. Häagen-Dazs was simply a made-up name for ice cream that was originally manufactured in the Bronx (after that, in New Jersey) by a Polish immigrant named Reuben Mattus, who chose the name and put a map of Scandanavia, with an arrow pointing towards Copenhagen, on the carton. High-priced, high-butterfat gourmet ice cream (known in the trade as “superpremium”) became one of the fundamental foodstuffs of the spendthrift yuppie years; and in that era, in and around Boston, several independent producers created a new niche for ice cream that was clever, hip, inventive, and, in the case of hippie-capitalist Ben & Jerry’s of Vermont, seemingly anti-establishment.
Deluxe ice cream’s prestige as something better than plebeian indulgence has been maintained by the popularization of Italian gelato (like ice cream, but with lower butterfat content, hence more intense flavor) and by artisan ice cream makers in major cities who make a point of using local dairy products and even local fruit to create unusual, expensive flavors.
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