Thursday, March 09, 2006

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.


At 3:39 PM, March 09, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

Thank you for a pleasant and engaging change of pace. I am curious as to why New Englanders insist on calling milk shakes frappes. In fact, as I recall there are two different names up there .....

With regard to your picture, because you are holding the apple, it reminds me not so much of Magritte as a coy Eve enticing Adam with the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Either way, it works, I guess.

At 4:28 PM, March 09, 2006, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

I love Steve's reference to a coy Eve enticing Adam with the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Wicked fun stuff for both sons and daughters of Eve. The info at the other end of your link to the history of ice harvesting in New England brought to mind what geography teachers SHOULD be teaching to engage rather than indoctrinate the minds of the younger generation.

At 4:53 PM, March 09, 2006, Blogger Goesh said...

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream ...

At 5:48 PM, March 09, 2006, Anonymous Bill said...

Stopped last night in Quincy Ma for clams and a ice cream treat. You know spring is around the corner when the ice cream and clam shacks open. Good stuff. Look forward to March for that reason. Oh and sring training as well.

At 7:05 PM, March 09, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Steve: glad you liked it.

I haven't a clue why they're called "frappes," though. After all, I'm not a New Englander (I've only lived here about 35 years or so).

This is the most extensive discussion I could find on the matter. Some combination of "knocked" and "iced" in French.

As for the apple/Eve thing, I hadn't considered it when I first thought of the idea for the photo and put it on the blog. Later, though, I have to say it occurred to me; I think of it as tempting liberals to come over to the dark side :-).

At 7:42 PM, March 09, 2006, Anonymous douglas said...

hmmm, holding the fruit of the tree of knowledge... I like that read of your pic.
(an aside- it also really irks me when people think it's the fruit of the tree of life).

At 7:43 PM, March 09, 2006, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

Lynn, Massachusetts is just down the pike from us here in Chelsea-by-the-Sea, the very town where we bought chair and curtain fabric last week. I flew over it in a two-person helicopter and photographed its marshlands and water bodies in my grad-school days last century. Ice formed by Mother Nature on Flax Pond in Lynn two centuries ago was harvested and shipped to the Caribbean by an American entrepreneur. In such unremembered -- by today's trendy "geography" teachers who see our capitalistic economic system "at odds with humanity" -- Adam-Smith moments is the history of freedom writ large.

Teaching -- not preaching -- a geography lesson

At 10:25 PM, March 09, 2006, Anonymous triticale said...

Here in Wisconsin, not the warmest part of the country either, the confection is frozen custard. Most of the vendors stay open year round, altho for the last few months burgers have been a larger proportion of their sales volume than it is during the summer.

At 11:33 PM, March 09, 2006, Blogger Robert Schwartz said...

But we have Graeter's

At 11:38 PM, March 09, 2006, Blogger gatorbait said...

Down here in the land of perpetual summer , we make everything so damn hot , we sweat thinking about it. Think "dem berled mudbugs hawrt"

I have to hand it to New England, best Ice Cream anywhere.

At 3:57 AM, March 10, 2006, Blogger camojack said...

Ben & Jerry would be proud. But they're closer to the lakeshore (Champlain) than the seacoast...

At 7:16 AM, March 10, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as I know, frappes are made with ice blended in and milkshakes aren't. So frappes are watery milkshakes. I think frozen custard has less milk in it than milkshakes and is thicker.

At 9:00 AM, March 10, 2006, Anonymous Mitch said...

The last icehouse on Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield MA was just torn down about 15 years ago. There was a great uproar, but it was just too far gone to save. Transportation of ice, by the way, was the main reason behind the design of clipper ships – speed was essential.

And what could be more strange than eating ice cream in the New England "spring" (known locally as "mud season")? How about eating ice cream in the Russian winter?

At 9:22 AM, March 10, 2006, Blogger Mohammed Is A Woman, Peace Be Upon Her said...

Lovers of Islam Unite! - Pancakes for Mohammed, peace be upon Her

Keep your calendars open for Sunday, March 18th, at 11 AM for the first annual Pancakes for Mohammed, peace be upon Her, Sunday Pancake Fundraiser at Dennys. This is a great way to raise money for our Islam saving cause while eating great pancakes. And remember, “Hold the sausage please!”

For those of us who are trying to convince our Muslim brothers and sisters about the true gender of the Prophet, peace be upon Her, come out and speak up and bring a few shekels to donate. Also, be sure and bring your best drawing of the Prophet, peace be upon Her. I propose that each group vote on the best depiction of the Prophet, peace be upon Her and pay for the winning artist to eat for free.

Now remember, drawing the Prophet with a bomb on Her head has already been done, so please, choose something else.

At 10:03 AM, March 10, 2006, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

What a lovely piece of local flavah.

I suspect the ice cream thing goes back to when we were the corner of the world with the corner on both ice and cream. All regional delicacies generally go back to a time when you ate it because it's what you had handy, and became traditionized.

This caught my eye:

"After all, I'm not a New Englander (I've only lived here about 35 years or so)."

There's a great story I vaguely remember, used to illustrate the insularity of the folks hereabouts, especially Martha's Vineyard. It's true, I think.

A woman was born on board a ship moored just offshore Martha's Vineyard that was bringing her family to live there. She was brought ashore the next day, lived her entire very long life on-island without ever leaving, raised a large family, and was generally a pillar of the community. When she finally died, her eulogist began:

"She wasn't from around here, but..."

At 10:42 AM, March 10, 2006, Blogger Jamie Irons said...


I think this is one of the best pieces I've read on the net in a long while.

As I haven't had time to read each comment carefully, forgive me if someone has already said this: spring starts in March because March 20 is (usually) the vernal (spring) equinox, the day when the sun in tracing its imaginary path along the ecliptic crosses from the southern into the northern celestial hemisphere, and we have exactly twelve hours of daylight and twelve of darkness. The cold lingers because of (mostly) the high specific heat of land and (especially) water, which take a while to warm up in the heat of the sun.

Remember Charles DeGaulle's calling the French nuclear deterrent his force de frappe?

He wasn't talking about ice cream!

There's a wonderful passage in Thoreau's Walden about harvesting ice on Walden Pond, if I remember correctly.

Jamie Irons

At 11:51 AM, March 10, 2006, Blogger Senescent Wasp said...

Marvelous topic; history, economics and sweet treats. When I was very little, I can just barely remember the iceman servicing the older people in the neighborhood who didn't want to give up their iceboxes. He'd pull a block out of the sawdust pile, grab it with his tongs and throw it over his shoulder onto the leather pad. And, walk it into the house.

Of course, by that time the ice wasn't harvested ice. The California icehouses were all very high on the mountain lakes, especially the Sierras. They not only supplied ice for home use but were instrumental in the growth of California's fruit and vegetable industry along with the insulated, ice chilled, railroad "reefers".

Huge trains with many immense steam locomotives would crawl over the mountain passes shipping our fruit to eastern markets. I can remember looking at our winter Navel oranges and thinking, "Whose Christmas stocking will you wind up in?"

Many of them never got any further than that since everybody carried a "fruit knife" in those days, especially kids who knew the bearing cycles of every non citrus fruit tree in the neighborhood. Is there anything better than slicing sunwarmed Royal Blenheim apricots into the can of the ice cream maker anticipating the taste of the product? And, then sharing the dasher with your brother as a reward for grinding away at the crank.

At 1:33 PM, March 10, 2006, Anonymous Will Franklin said...

I live among hundreds of live oak trees in my neighborhood. Live oak trees lose their leaves just before growing new ones. In Spring.

So it seems like fall if you look at the ground. But it has felt like late Spring or early Summer for weeks now, temperature-wise.

At 12:10 AM, March 11, 2006, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have only heard frappay used facetiously, and even that many years ago. The link discussion about iced and knocked in French got a little wearying, with people speculating a lot without actual knowledge.

In NH, ME, and Eastern MA at least, a frappe is with ice cream, a milk shake without. Has been for years.

It can be hard to run down a good coffee frappe these days. I keep hoping to find some place that will make 'em with Herrell's espresso ice cream (Steve Herrell founded both Steve's and later Herrell's, BTW). Most older places will still do you a black & white, though.

SlippicanCottage: another punchline to a similar joke is "Just becahz the cat had her kitt'ns in the oven doesn't mean I'd call 'em biscuits."


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger