Interpreting Food, Digesting Memory

Photo: “Scoops,” Granclement Gelateria, Casco Viejo, Panama.

The first time I heard of gelato I’d traded my dogsled and down-filled parka for a Eurail pass and a Eu-ro-mance—some twenty years ago.  As the Eu-ro-mance, (now) my husband, likes to say, “That was a long time ago.”  But not as long as my romance with frozen creamy deserts.

This photo of ice cream scoops, I took in  Granclement Gelateria in Casco Viejo, Panama, reminds me not of that historic town’s uneven, cobble-stoned streets, nor of the Abuelo peeling mango at the shop’s door, but, rather of Western New York summers.  

Growing up, my grandparents lived next door. They indulged my sister and I with the run of their vegetable and raspberry patch and their freezer, which always contained a huge tub of Creamsicle ice cream from Tops, our regional grocer.

Gelato would never have been part of my grandparents’ vocabulary. Wedded to their farm and post-depression-era frugality, a spaghetti dinner with a side of black olives was exotic. When my grandmother visited me in later years and my girls got out a container of mocha gelato for desert, I recall her exclaiming: “Gelat-a-mo-what?  Where’s that from?”

Theories abound on the origins of ice cream. Roman Emperor Nero’s slaves were said to retrieve mountain snow to mix with honey, and/or spices to create a gelato-like treat.  Evidence suggests that Chinese Emperors indulged in frozen treats confected from snow and ice, flavored with honey, wine, fruit or even fermented buffalo milk and rice.

But as a girl in the soppy swelter of a lake-effect August, I had other ideas. I’d open my grandparent’s behemoth, standing freezer to peer through the sudden, swirling fog, torn for a nanosecond between cooling off, or satisfying my yen for something sweet and cold.

Wire shelves held bags bubbling with Papa’s July peas, jars jumping with Mamie’s crimson freezer jam, triple-coupon-acquired Cool-Whips, and boxed ice creams. Flavors like Maple Walnut (Mamie and mom), Chocolate (daddy and me), Black Raspberry (sister and me) were topped by the GRANDADDY of all summer ice creams:  the two-gallon, plastic, ice-caked, pail of Creamsicle (sister, papa and ME!!!!). But it’s what happened after everyone dished up that freeze-frames ice cream in summer memory. As my husband likes to say, “It’s probably a childhood thing.” He’s probably right. (At least this time.)

It probably started after visiting Hibbard’s Custard Stand in neighboring Lewiston.  Which, in the Niagara Region, is still, probably the only place to get soft-serve.  One swallow of ultra rich, creamy smoothness (chocolate – me, choco-vanilla twist– my sister) and we were hooked.

Knowing it was a special treat my sister and I figured we were most likely to have it more often if it was homemade. We begged our grandmother. Well, in our family ice cream-making was men’s work, reserved for non-winter birthdays and holidays when great uncle’s rolled up shirt sleeves, and took turns hand-cranking over the salty wooden ice pail on the back porch, while my sister and I poked grass stalks into melt-water dribbling from the ice-clogged, over-flow hole.

In the face of her grandchildren’s calls—more like incessant wails—for soft-serve ice cream, my grandmother invented a quick fix. After dishing up our respective, store-bought flavors, she would plant herself squarely in her chair.  With her elbow cocked and her hand gripping a large spoon, she’d mash, fold, and whip our store-bought ice cream into a smooth swirl.

I especially thrilled, to watch over my Mamie’s able, flapping bicep to see strains of cream and bright orange fade to smoother milky tangerine.  By the time she’d whipped up a couple “Mamie soft-serves,” her maple walnut was schmaltzy and supple, slowly revealing nut clusters, just the way she liked it.

Likewise, later when I’d bring my girls for summer visits, my grandmother’s ice cream softening duties had increased by 2x between my sister’s children and mine, yet the measure of this simple act remained, unquantifiable.

Recently, when my children visit their German grandfather, they bolt through the stone-matrixed streets of his childhood Rheinpfalz village straight to Roberto Simonetti’s ice cream café: Italienische Eisdiele, San Marco, lodged conveniently next door to their great aunt’s coffee and tea shop (in the family for 150 years).

If asked, Roberto will talk about his Weltmeister, whereby the National Enquirer challenged him to top his Guinness Book record for the largest ice cream cone, which he did by 57 scoops with a 340-scoop cone.

“An American newspaper took pictures. Maybe you know it? The Enquirer?” Roberto proudly explains, pointing to a laminated article in the window.

Over a glass of Roberto’s lemon sorbet (my oldest) or a Nutella-ice cone (my youngest), my children wrinkle up their noses when I tell them I used to eat Eskimo ice cream made from Crisco, berries, and fish in Alaska; or laugh to think of their young graduate-student parents getting off Munich’s afternoon S-bahn for a “spaghetti ice” date, or to think their mother may have had her first taste of gelato in her twenties, when celebrating her engagement.

“You were that old mommy?”

But, no matter where we are, or what kind of ice cream we eat, my kids will ask, “Which one do you think will be most like Mamie’s?”  

Funny, how far we travel to find ourselves at home.


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46 thoughts on “Interpreting Food, Digesting Memory

    • Diane, you were such an integral part of the onset of my book (onset sounds like an affliction…)or at least something that’s totally taken over my life! Which I am glad writing and my writing relationships have! Writers give thought, humor and such great insight to life! I feel privileged we started that journey together! Stay in touch and thanks for the ongoing support! It means a lot from such a great writer!

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  1. Renee, Thanks for giving me the “scoop” on ice cream and your family background. You are such a talented and seasoned writer. I am envious of your skill. Love the blog and the feel of it – very inviting.and sweet. You go girrrl. Hug and kiss. Loretta

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    • Thank you for your support! This is certainly a journey… lots of late nights trying to get this thing just right! I especially appreciate your insights since you are such a thoughtful person!

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  2. Great first blog, love the photo, love the ruminations, went right to the freezer for a Klondike bar:)

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  3. This morning I was sampling the sunflower butter my daughter had picked up in lieu of peanut butter and with the first bite was thrown back into my childhood: At age 12 I was invited by my best friend over a school holiday to visit her family who lived in a little village outside of Sofia, Bulgaria. The sunflower butter being sampled in my kitchen yesterday tasted exactly like the halva I smeared on the crusty, white country bread that the bread delivery boy brought a couple of times a week in his basket. Funny, how far away we might be to experience a wonderful culinary memory! Renee, thanks for the delightful article and please keep them coming.

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  4. Thanks for including me in your inaugural blog post!!! I absolutely loved it. I can hear your voice as I read it and picture your family/grandparents home. I can’t wait until next week to read another one! 🙂

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    • I’m glad it spoke to you! It’s been so long since I’ve been “home” in that way, I wondered if I’d captured it. This means a lot knowing you were there and know what I mean! Please forward to your mom and dad! I hope they will connect with what you did!

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  5. I just had a divine Italian dinner and brought my computer outside to look over today’s emails. It’s such a lovely desert evening. Thanks for a great dessert!

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      • Oh, yes, we have Moevenpick!!! Very good ice cream, indeed. I cooked last night. Found this wonderful recipe for grilled eggplant that is marinated in olive oil, garlic, chile flakes, lemon juice and basil leaves. Delicious!

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  6. Congratulations on your first posting!
    My first taste of gelato was in San Diego as a teenager. My friends and I would drive to Mission Hills for gelato and a mocha (no Starbuck’s back then!). And creamsicles? Well, those were a treat when we visited Grandma during the summer. My cousins and I would walk along Mission Bay to the mini store to buy our favorite ice cream bar. It was so difficult to decide what flavor to choose (creamsicle, fudge bar, or drumstick), so we would discuss our options (even though they never changed from one summer to the next) and always walked away with the pleasure of the taste of cold ice cream on our lips.

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    • Thank you Lisa! What is it with grandparents and Creamsicle? Must be some inexplicable merging of times, marketing, tastes… etc. What a sweet sidebar you’ve added to the gelato trip here. I can just envision you and high school friends tripping around Mission Hills! Love how the favorites never change. Funny that! Thanks for your special touch here!

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  7. Wonderful blog! I just had a divine Italian dinner and brought my computer outside to savour our lovely desert evening… And wouldn’t you know it…you just provided me with the best dessert. I will be in touch soon.

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    • I bet you have a lot of gelato stories you could relate! I’m a relative newcomer! How is the little one? And I understand from your father that there is a local Asian restaurant that you and your other half really like here in town… do tell! Hugs to the little one! My oldest towers over me now!

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    • Thank you! You probably know much more about where to get gelato here in town than I! I also understand that you and your other half know of a great Asian lunch spot… we’ll have to talk! I bet the little one’s getting big! My biggest is much bigger than me!

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  8. This is really fun to read. It brought back memories when I was a child (many moons) and my favorite foods. I am glad that you are using some skills that you might have learned in a high school English class. I look forward to reading a lot more.

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    • Well, high school ENG class was unforgettable! Especially when taught by such a personality! Funny how food and memory are so intertwined! I had a friend respond via email from Alaska who had grown up in Niagara area that he recalled Hibbard’s as a child! (And, he’s my mother’s age!) I learn something new everyday!

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  9. What a “sweet” memory…I can see Maime in the kitchen with her quiet smile and Uncle Lawton out on the lawn making lemonade while we each took our turn cranking the ice cream bucket…love the the last line “Funny, how far we travel to find ourselves at home.” In this case, I traveled to the furthest recesses of my mind and came back feeling warm and loved! Thanks for the memories…can’t wait for the next!

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    • I so enjoy hearing from you and your perspective! And I’m so glad that between adventures and globe hopping that you took the time to seek us out! I’m glad the family continues to stay together and that the other side of my family shared similar summer delights! I’m privileged to know you and understand where you’ve been. Will you be starting a business blog?

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  10. This is amazing! I’m excited for you and this journey you are taking. As I read your post, it was as if you were sitting across from me – I could hear your voice and see you clearly. Looking forward to the next one.

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    • Jeannette,

      Thank you! Much appreciated that you could squeeze my frivolous journey into your amazing day! Would love to connect again soon! You may know, Gokhan stopped by a few weeks ago now. I was in and out so didn’t have the pleasure of fully catching up, as I hope you and I can do sometime soon. Some writing I’m doing finds me at the capital and I think of you as I pass the downtown skyscrapers. I also think of you and our refreshing “parenting talks.” Soon, hopefully, Renee.

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  11. Gelato reminds me of biking the Erie Canal with my then ten-year-old son Dan. We made a pact to stop at as many ice creameries as possible along the journey. The best by far was the cute little gelato place in Fairport – I remember the sharp flavors, odd clientele, and bizarre clown paintings on the wall as if it were yesterday.

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    • You mentioned that trip when you were in town. I was really impressed! What an amazing thing to do with your son. YOu will both remember it forever! The details in your memory are phenomenal too!

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  12. Loved reading your tasteful story and I feel lucky to be included in reading your weekly blogs, Renee. I certainly don’t have any international experiences with ice cream but what stirred in this Oklahoma farm girls memory was all the summer family get togethers at our house. Homemade strawberry ice cream was always on the menu. Hand picked strawberries from the garden were thrown into the container with lots of sugar and cream. It was the kids (all 13 cousins) that had to turn the crank…over and over and over. We all thought it was fun until our little shoulder muscles began to burn making us realize that this was one treat that turned into a chore. Maybe that’s why it was always so delicious!

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    • Kristi,

      How delightful to have your story here! Handpicked strawberries, hand cranking, cousins (13 wow!)… and that cranking turned a treat into a chore! I can just envision an Oklahoma afternoon in summer. About as sweltering as Western New York… and the lovely hedgerows where you could find wild strawberries… before the ones in the garden were ready! I know there are dozens of stories of your own waiting to emerge just from this paragraph!

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  13. Mamie knew how to make Cold Stone before anybody knew about it. It was a nightly ritual. Papa’s favorite was to fill half a cantaloupe with vanilla ice cream.

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    • Wow! I forgot about the ice cream in the cantaloupe! And you registered as MOM… wow! Mothers Day is coming! I might have to get some things pre-approved! Thanks!

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  14. Congrats Renee on your first blog! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog that I wanted to read more. Looking forward to your next one! It brought back such fond memories of when I was young. Thanks for sharing!

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  15. good for you Renee..i’m not much of a blogger/reader/contributor, but you are good at it and you certainly seem to fill a need. you go girl!

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  16. Ahhh Gelato – great post on a very indulging topic! My wife and I went to a gelaterie late one night after several glasses of wine in Rome. I think the place was called Gelateria della Palma (At least that is what I remember bc I associated the name of the place with the Scarface director Brian De Palma) – anyways it had hundreds of flavors of gelato. I think we may have sampled them all. We are hoping to go back next year and this post just got my taste buds daydreaming about that place….

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  17. Gelato, Gelato how I love and miss thee.
    I have yet to find Gelato here, that would be as good as what I enjoyed in Italy. For me it was a different flavor (sometimes two) every day, and life was good. I wonder how many flavors I left untried?! Oh my!
    My favorite childhood ice cream memory is of visiting an outdoor ice cream cafe. I come from Germany and when I was growing up that was pretty much the only way you could get ice cream, since there were no freezers, nor could you buy ice to make your own ice cream. Wow, that was a long time ago! Going for ice cream to the cafe was often a family affair. Each creation was served with wafers, lots of real whipped cream, cherry on top. Wonderful memories.
    Enjoyed your story Renee. Danke schoen for sharing and including me.

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  18. Renee: you should send this blog to Don Glen the editor of the Niagara Gazette and mention in your email that you are the Daughter of the retired DEPUTY historian of Niagara county. suggesting that the story is one of local icecrem flavo.

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