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.
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.