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What's In Our Food Matters — Yes, Even What's In That Ice Cream Cone

(StockSnap/Pixabay)
(StockSnap/Pixabay)

It’s one of the hottest days of the year and I’m sitting across the table from Kristen Rummel, owner of Cambridge’s Honeycomb Creamery, digging in to a malted vanilla kiddie cup encased in housemade chocolate shell. I’m here to talk to her about the shop’s specialty, made-from-scratch ice cream.

What’s so special about that? She’s one of only two independent ice cream shops in the area who makes their ice cream completely from scratch, at least as far as I could tell in my research (New City Microcreamery is the other). They source dairy and mix ingredients to their own specifications. They use sophisticated and expensive pasteurizing equipment. They keep records of the air and liquid temperature inside the machinery, and must send their products in for lab testing on a regular basis. Unbeknownst to most of us, their competitors skip some or all of these steps. Not all ice cream is created equal.

Rummel is quick to assure me that she still eats and loves all ice cream. “Our product is different, not necessarily better,” she explains. It all depends what you like. New England style ice cream is what people around here know and love; some seek only classic flavors while others have permanent allegiance to certain shops. “Ice cream is so situational, so nostalgic, it’s really subjective. We’re trying to build awareness about what we do without telling people that what they like is wrong.”

So here’s the scoop: the overwhelming majority of retail ice cream shops use premixed ice cream base sold by large companies like H.P Hood or Scott Brothers. A few have their mix custom-manufactured by smaller regional dairies. Ready-to-churn base often contains a mix of dairy, stabilizers and gums, and sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. It’s industrially pasteurized to meet state and federal health code requirements. Retail shops then add flavorings and other ingredients, and churn the ice cream in-house. Buying ice cream base saves money on labor and equipment and ensures food safety and product consistency — but it can be a hard choice for ice cream makers who don’t want to sacrifice the control or “the privilege of hand-stirring every batch of ice cream.”

Steeped in nostalgia, our local ice cream parlors remind us of simple and pure pleasures. The general public has romantic ideas about how ice cream is made, Rummel explains. Maybe they picture a dairy farmstand with cows in the field out back, or a family of ice cream makers stirring ingredients over the stove. In part, these misconceptions endure because consumers just aren’t all that curious. When was the last time you asked where your ice cream was made?

If you spent summers in high school working in the local ice cream parlor, pre-mixed ice cream base may not be news to you. But for many ice cream enthusiasts, it’s shocking to learn that most of the ice cream they debate over based on their discriminating palates and high standards for quality is made from the same mixture.

A closer look at the world of ice cream underscores how little most of us know about our food. We don’t understand the corporate forces or legal restrictions that shape food production and consumption. We’re not aware of the tough choices that chefs, farmers, and makers face. And that means we can’t meaningfully influence or participate in our food system, which is too bad, because it desperately needs our attention. Even something as fun and seemingly innocuous as ice cream is fundamentally shaped by structural forces, and the effects trickle down to us, whether we know it or not.

I agree with Rummel: it’s not wrong for ice cream shops to buy premixed base, just like it’s not wrong for sandwich shops to buy bread. I like all ice cream, from the small-batch to the mass-produced. I still miss Ice Cream Works, whose sundaes were a highly anticipated treat in my childhood. I love Hershey’s syrup with rainbow sprinkles on top of Breyer’s mint chocolate chip. I definitely like Honeycomb’s malted vanilla. I like knowing the difference; I like having choice. So I would also like a New England where more folks can choose to eat ice cream that was made, from beginning to end, by a real shopkeeper whose hand they can shake. That might require addressing regulations or requiring more transparency from businesses. It would mean incentivizing small-scale ice cream operations that want to make their ice cream from scratch. It would definitely require consumers to be more informed.

Our collective lack of awareness should give us pause. We don’t know what we’re missing, or why we’re missing it. If you’re now wondering whether your favorite ice cream is made from scratch in-store or just flavored and churned, I hope you won’t be afraid to find out. (Hint — it’s probably just flavored and churned.) We have to push past the nostalgia that keeps us from asking important questions about what we’re paying for and putting in our bodies. Only then can we earnestly engage in creating the food system we want and need — preferably one with lots of kinds of ice cream.

Irene Li Twitter Food Columnist
Irene Li is The ARTery's food columnist. She operates Mei Mei Street Kitchen and Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston.

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