By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1998 Gourmet Magazine
It is a bright, blue-sky day in July. A scoop of cool vanilla ice cream is perched atop a cone. Lick it, and your tongue tells you that the silky white orb is so softened by the summer sun that it’s about to drip sweet cream onto your wrist. Better lick it again fast. And again and again until it’s gone. Can there be any culinary joy purer than this? It is known by children and adults, sophisticates and naïfs; and there is no better time and place to indulge it than on vacation somewhere in New England, in a small-town parlor.
Why New England? For one thing, New Englanders eat more ice cream than people anywhere else in America. At the beach or in the mountains, as the heart of an Independence Day banana split or spooned onto a serious dish of warm Indian pudding on a dark evening in November, ice cream is a Yankee staple. Rare is the Down East Main Street without at least one parlor boasting of its sodas, shakes, and sundaes. In this part of the world, an accomplished ice-cream maker is as highly regarded as the town pitmaster in North Carolina or a blue-ribbon pie chef in Iowa. Fans of indigenous brands are zealous: Simply mention Round Top or Cote’s (Maine), Wentworth or Timothy’s (Connecticut), Herrell’s or Gary’s (Massachusetts), and you will set appetites “agrowl” and encomiums “ascatter” like jimmies on a sprinkle cone.
Passion aside, New England stakes a claim to several great moments in ice-cream history, including the ingenious twenty-eight flavor concept of Howard Johnson, who started in 1925 at a drugstore counter in Wollaston, Massachusetts. Many entrepreneurs have since found success selling ice cream in New England—from the Blake brothers, who opened their first Friendly’s shop in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1935; to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who rode the current tide of ice-cream ardor to pop-culture fame (and fortune) with the super-rich, crazy-flavored stuff they began hand-cranking in 1978 in a defunct gas station near the University of Vermont in Burlington.
Ben & Jerry’s franchises have been springing up throughout the region as fast as factory outlet stores, and they have legions of devotees. But for us, the joy of ice cream is found in simpler places, in the family-owned parlors where small batches are concocted in the back room every morning. In such shops—as we worry over life’s great dilemmas: one scoop or two? hot fudge or hot butterscotch? whipped cream or marshmallow?—we are transported back to a time when a triple-dip sundae with a cherry on top was the most wondrous of culinary treats. And we are reminded of ice cream’s nearly patriotic status as the classic American food reward—for armed forces personnel coming home as well as for boys and girls who’ve had their tonsils out. Innocent and cheerful, ice cream has an amazing power to provoke a smile.
So please forget everything you know about upwardly mobile designer brands and the current glut of high-butterfat corporate giants vying for market share; come instead with us to a trio of sweet shops with lazy-day, vacation-time charm.
When W. Wells Watson opened a little ice-cream shop in Centerville, Massachusetts, just west of Hyannis, in 1934, the location was his inspiration for a name. Recalling the first line of a favorite poem—”We face four seas/Four seas of azure blue”—he counted the Atlantic Ocean, Nantucket Sound, Buzzards Bay, and Cape Cod Bay (all of which surround the Cape) and named his parlor FOUR SEAS. Now owned by Dick Warren, who bought the business in 1960 after working behind the counter for a few years, the wood-sided building, once a blacksmith’s shop, is burnished with age. The floor lists; the waist-level, silver-topped serving cabinets bear dents and dings from millions of metal scoops and milkshake beakers; and the snug interior festooned with miscellaneous fish nets, nautical knick knacks, souvenir T-shirts, and newspaper clippings has been called “hodgepodge Cod.”
The most interesting aspect of the decor are the signs, which are everywhere. Long inventories both inside and on the outside of the building enumerate which of the two dozen flavors are available that day: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, of course; maple walnut, black raspberry, and other fairly familiar names; plus such curious house specialties as penuche pecan and frozen pudding; and, on occasion, fresh cantaloupe. Likewise, the list of sundae toppings ranges from the familiar—hot milk fudge (a.k.a. hot fudge) and hot butterscotch—to such soda-fountain Victoriana as claret, wild cherry, and soft walnuts in maple syrup. “Frappes” and milkshake flavors are also itemized—all are available plain, minted, or malted—and if you’re not from around here you need to know that “milkshake” means nothing more than flavored syrup and milk. A frappe is what most of us know as a milkshake: flavoring, milk, and ice cream blended together.
One sign opposite the counter offers deliverance for those of us seated on low stools with our jaws dropped and eyes glazed over from so many tempting choices. Headlined Two GOOD SUNDAES, the sign suggests the following combos: coconut ice cream with hot milk fudge or coffee ice cream with soft walnuts and maple syrup. Sundaes are served in appropriately proportioned glass dishes—tall clear tulips for regular-sized ones, broad hobnail milk-glass trays for triple-scoopers—and they are accompanied by cool drinking water in old-fashioned, pointy-bottom paper cups stuck in heavy, reusable bases.
The sundaes are a delight; claret sauce on chocolate ice cream is our undoing. Frappes are expertly blended. And there is one non-ice-cream item we need to note, the perfectly proportioned lobster salad sandwich (available only between 10:30 A.M. and 2:30 P.M.). But the pride of Four Seas are the cones: small (one generous globe), large (one extra-big conical scoop), or double (two globes); the last is the maximum amount of ice cream any ordinary-sized cone can bear.
The cone, of course, is the perfect ice-cream delivery system, allowing folks to eat on the stroll without cumbersome utensils, and also obviating interference from sauce, nuts, cherries, or whipped cream. This is not to impugn fudge or marshmallow cream, it’s just that Four Seas ice cream is worth savoring with no adornment. It’s honest and pure, luxurious but not ridiculously rich. This is ice cream you want to eat every night, all summer long.
In 1976, for the bicentennial parade in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, Bill and Grace Bishop decided to hand-crank some ice cream. People loved it and ate all they made, so after the festivities were over the Bishops made more. Four years later, they bought a Victorian house in neighboring Littleton and opened what has become one of the most beloved ice-cream parlors in northern New England. From April to Columbus Day, BISHOP’S always has a line of customers snaking out the door in a state of happy anticipation. It is quite a sight, once the patient hungries get inside, to see their eager faces study the board on which are posted about two dozen flavors. Eyes light up and tongues moisten lips as groups of waiting children and adults confer on the exact details of the treat that is about to be theirs.
Made daily by Harry and Zelli Taylor, who bought the business in 1986, Bishop’s is an ingenuous ice cream. Oh, there are some baroque concoctions on the menu, Bishop’s Bash in particular (chocolate chips, nuts, and brownie chunks in dark chocolate ice cream), but the best flavors here have the carefree quality that ice cream used to have before the era of overwrought amalgams loaded with cookies and candy. Vanilla is an unsullied white; chocolate is only gently chocolaty and not too serious; coffee is more creamy than caffeinated. Here, too, is an old Yankee favorite, Grape-Nuts ice cream, with little nubs of cereal softened to grainy bits of salubrious texture in the smooth ivory frozen custard.
There is something unusually civilized about coming to Bishop’s for ice cream. You’d think that such a happy-time product would stimulate yelps of exuberance and that the shop would ring with rapture. On the contrary, there is a reverential hush about it, even when Bishop’s is jammed and every little table is occupied with ice-cream eaters and dozens are waiting to get inside. Perhaps it’s due to the polite aura of the stately old house; or maybe to the captivating charm of the young ice-cream servers, who are extraordinarily solicitous as you choose between a S’mores sundae and a maple sundae, and who want to know, if you order a sundae with both buttercrunch and coffee ice cream, which flavor you want on top.
Congeniality is part of the Bishop’s experience, as exemplified in the way a cone is handled: The server sets an empty into a varnished wooden holder on the counter while your chosen flavor is scooped. The cone is removed, topped with ice cream, then set back into the holder so that while you pay and take a napkin or a cup of water from the fountain you needn’t worry about juggling it. When you do take possession, we suggest you head outside and find a seat on a bench in front of the big white house with its purple awnings and window boxes full of purple petunias. Here you can lick away to the sound of an American flag flapping high above.
There aren’t a lot of flavors at DR. MIKE’S: Eight are listed on the blackboard at any one time, and the roster may change if cherry vanilla or mint chip gets eaten up. The place is cramped, hidden away in Bethel, Connecticut, back alley with accommodations that consist of exactly three rickety tables on the porch, forcing most customers to eat leaning against their cars in the parking area. On a weekend afternoon, you’ll wait forever to place your order at the tiny counter, where there is barely room for two employees. But inconvenience does nothing to dissuade Dr. Mike’s diehards, for we are convinced that we have found the most delicious ice cream in the history of mankind.
Made every morning using cream trucked down from a Massachusetts dairy farm and a short list of other top-quality ingredients, it is superpremium manna that puts factory-made brands to shame. Rich Chocolate, always part of the flavor rotation, is a staggering food-stuff, its explosive Dutch cocoa taste carried in a cream smooth as iced velvet. Chocolate Lace and Cream, another standby, is made of sweetened cream (but no vanilla flavoring) and big chunks of a brittle Bethel-made sugar candy sheathed in bittersweet chocolate. Fancy flavors such as Heath Bar and Oreo are made from a base of nothing but cream and Heath Bars and Oreos, without the eggs many ice-cream makers add to thicken the custard. Even plain vanilla is a revelation: smooth and pure beyond description.
Dr. Mike’s ice cream is never prepacked, and it is awe-inspiring to watch the kids behind the counter fill a pint to order. Such a laborious process! A heavy spade is used to retrieve a mass of your chosen ice cream from its tub. It is pressed deep inside a cardboard container, then more is fetched to mash on top. When the container is piled high with ice cream far above its rim, the pint-packer uses the spade like a mallet, pounding to make the ice cream fit. This continues until an impossibly huge amount of ice cream is compressed into the pint. The server takes the cardboard lid, expertly distends its top to form a cup-shaped hood, then eases it over the mounded-high ice cream so that the band around the circumference winds up fitting like a belt you wore three sizes ago.
And oh, what sundaes! A full-sized one totally fills a cardboard pint container once a shovel full of fresh whipped cream is piled on top. Among the toppings, take special note of the tart-sweet dark cherries, especially if chocolate malt ice cream happens to be on the board that day.
Dr. Mike’s also makes amazing milkshakes. And never in twenty years as devotees have we once seen the blenders work efficiently. The soda jerk always has to poke at the ingredients and coax them to budge so that the ice cream and milk will mix. Without the prodding, the machine’s wand simply doesn’t have the torque to move ice cream so thick.
Named for the local dentist who provided the seed money and helped open the back-alley shop in 1975, Dr. Mike’s has been solely owned for the past twenty years by Robert Allison. When we asked Mr. Allison, who identifies himself as “Dr. Mike,” why his ice cream is so good, he explained that cramped surroundings preclude mass production and mass storage. The only possible way to manufacture ice cream in this place is daily, by hand, and in small batches.
But there is another explanation: “I love ice cream,” he told us with unabashed glee as he swirled his tongue around a scoop of that morning’s Rich Chocolate perched atop a cone. “I love it so much that I figure I need to make the best there is. If I didn’t, I’d have to go someplace else whenever I wanted a cone.”