First sign of spring: ice cream in New England
Last night, as I was driving home at 7 PM in the dark and the cold, I saw some lights up ahead where there hadn't been any lights for a while. It took a moment for it to penetrate my brain: the local ice cream stand had opened for the season.
One of the sure signs of winter's approach--right after the brilliantly-colored leaves have finished falling and the barren landscape has turned some monochrome neutral color that defies description--is the annual closing of that ice cream stand. It gets boarded up, and a sad little sign appears saying, "See you next spring!"
The lobster restaurant--the one that boasts the panoramic view of the cliffs and the waves, with just a few tables inside but a host of them outside--shuts down, too. The summer crowds have slowly thinned out, the tourists fade away, and finally, it's time. Even the gulls that usually hang around each summer evening, waiting for the leavings and the spoils (and sometimes not even waiting, but boldly grabbing a fried clam from a paper plate while the owner's back is turned for a moment)--even the gulls have gone somewhere else. And the owners probably go south to Florida for a well-earned (and very well-financed) rest.
But like those Capistrano swallows, like the monarch butterflies, like the grass in my lawn that looks as though it'll never grow again, brown and flat and scraped down to the dirt in spots by the marauding snow plow, it all returns in springtime (although not all at once).
I don't know why the ice cream stand comes first, but it does. It's always a shock to see it happen, because it opens in a season that's really quite indistinguishable from winter--in fact, it is winter. Last night the thermometer in my car read thirty-five degrees when I passed by, and it actually felt colder outside because there was a bit of a wind, and it was so dark.
But that didn't stop the intrepid customers who formed a line to wait there for their frozen confections: the soft serve and the hard, the sundaes and the shakes, the whatever it was they'd been craving and really could have gotten elsewhere inside an actual heated building. But it wouldn't be the same, would it? If you can buy your ice cream at a stand, it means that spring actually does begin in March (I never have quite understood why it starts then; I know it has to do with the sun, but even in New York the first day of spring never felt springlike).
So, what's up with New Englanders and ice cream? When I first moved to New England (Boston) many moons ago, I quickly noticed the ice cream stores that dotted the landscape, far more than I could ever remember seeing anywhere else, somewhat like coffee shops in Seattle (except, of course, I wouldn't have used that comparison, because those came later). I was told that New England has the highest per capita consumption of ice cream in the nation.
Think about it. Not the South, not California: New England, the coldest part of the continental US. It makes no sense, but it appears to be true. Even Harvard Business School says so:
New England has the highest consumption of ice cream per capita in the U.S....Some experts argue that the large student population in the area drives demand. Others believe the ice cream tradition in New England is strong since the 18th Century when Nancy Johnson invented the first ice cream churn, which led to its mass production. Regardless of what the reasons might be, one thing is clear: New Englanders are obsessed with this frozen treat.
Nowadays, with modern refrigeration and tools, it's relatively easy to make ice cream. We forget that, back when ice cream was a great and rare delicacy, it required a lot of real ice and a great deal of hand churning to create the dish. Perhaps that's the secret to how ice cream got such a firm grip on the palates of New Englanders, and became a tradition--in those pre-Alaska days, nowhere in the US was it easier to get ice than here.
In fact, ice itself was a huge and important industry in New England in the 1800s. Here's a website devoted to the lore of this now mostly-forgotten industry:
Harvesting natural ice became big business in New England during the 19th century. The birth of America’s large scale commercial ice industry began in New England in 1805. Frederick Tudor, a Boston merchant, created the first natural ice business in the United States. He shipped ice harvested on a pond in Lynn Massachusetts to the West Indies. Over the next thirty years Tudor made a fortune shipping ice around the world to places like Charleston, New Orleans, Cuba, Calcutta, South America, China and England. British records show that Queen Victoria purchased some ice from Massachusetts in the 1840’s.
New England ice in Calcutta. Not the sort of thing one would expect, back in the 1800s, before the days of Fedex and dry ice.
And the beginning of the death knell of the ice industry was sounded by a New Englander, too:
In 1834, Jacob Perkins of Newburyport, Massachusetts obtained a British patent for making artificial ice. He built a machine capable of producing ice in quantity by vaporization.
In my childhood my mother still referred to the refrigerator as the "icebox," a relic from her own youth, when it was exactly that. We don't have iceboxes any more, we have freezer-above or freezer-below (my personal favorite) or side-by-side or Subzero ice drawers (I don't know anyone who actually has them, although they apparently do exist). But we have a relic of those times--at least, I like to think so--in these long lines of New Englanders, braving the cold to toast the long-anticipated return of spring with some ice cream.