CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Emily Appel, 28, is in charge of spinning the well-regarded burnt caramel ice cream here at Toscanini’s, where both the ice cream and the memories are so thick they could make even an MIT engineer weep.
A year ago, she was in upstate New York, making premium ice cream from the milk Pittsford Farms Dairy has been putting into bottles for 126 years.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Appel knows top-shelf ice cream. Still, when she heads home to Schenectady, N.Y., she always swings into Stewart’s, a $1.5 billion chain of 330 convenience stores, to get a scoop of Adirondack Bear Paw in a cone.
“It’s the smell when I go in,” she said. “It still smells exactly the same in this kind of sweet way.”
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Like so many foods, ice cream has headed merrily into the world of local, handmade, artisanal elevation. But ice cream that pays less rent — the old-school regional ice creams on which entire childhood narratives have been built — remains immune to such culinary pressure.
In some circles, the nostalgic beauty of a quart of Yarnell’s Ozark Black Walnut in Arkansas or a scoop of Bassetts from Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia beats out any fancy high-fat, chef-spun ice cream.
“The best ice cream is what comes with experience,” said Troy Moon, 47, a resident of Portland, Maine, who holds a special fondness for pistachio ice cream from the regional brand Gifford’s, preferably eaten during a road trip though Maine.
It would be difficult to argue that any other food holds a stronger connection to memory than ice cream does. Ask most Americans about their favorite childhood ice cream and the descriptions will be vivid and specific.
It’s a coffee cone eaten on a summer Sunday afternoon in the parking lot of Dusty’s Dairy Bar in Westerly, R.I., or chocolate-chip ice cream eaten after school on a spring day at Four Seas Ice Cream in Centerville, Mass.
“Breyers coffee ice cream with my grandmother during summers in Sarasota, Florida,” said Emily Salkin Takoudes, a cookbook editor who also holds dear the Reese’s Pieces sundae at a Friendly’s in Dover, Del.
For others throughout the Midwest, it’s Isaly’s Skyscraper cone, a slender mountain of ice cream shaped with a specially designed scoop, or the Strawberry Cheesecake flavor at Thrifty in Southern California, or a bowl of vanilla made by Blue Bell, the Texas ice-cream brand sold in 23 states.
The appeal of an old-school regional brand is simple.
“We’re local and we’re stable and we’ve been around,” said Jon Tunberg, 61, of Whitey’s Ice Cream in Moline, Ill.
Tunberg’s parents bought the company in 1953, selling with an understated Midwest slogan: “When ice cream comes to mind, people come to Whitey’s.”
“We don’t make fried green tomato basil jalapeño ice cream,” he said. “Those are the ones that get the headlines on Yahoo. Our idea is, we try to make ice cream the way we like to eat it.”
The company makes about 600,000 gallons a year — a mere drop in the 900 million gallons of hard ice cream produced in the United States annually, according to the International Dairy Foods Association, a trade group.
Most ice-cream and frozen-dessert manufacturers in the United States have been in business for more than 50 years, and many are still family owned. More than 66 percent market their products regionally, according to a survey of members of the dairy association.
The number of ice-cream plants, both large and small, has dropped to 405 in 2012 from a peak of about 2,500 in 1960. In the age of consolidation in the late 1980s and 1990s, larger interests bought up many smaller regional brands. Some still sell under original brand names, but the taste has changed. Some regional ice-cream makers still make their own, but many buy a base mix.
As a result, there aren’t deep regional variations in nonartisanal ice cream. People in California eat essentially the same thing as those in Ohio, at least to a point.
Legally, ice cream must have at least 10 percent butterfat. Otherwise, it’s ice milk. Premium ice creams like Häagen-Dazs hover around 16 percent but can go up to 20 percent. Most regional favorites that don’t creep into the artisanal or premium world are 12 or 13 percent butterfat. Sweeteners can make a difference. Some use a little more corn syrup than sugar to smooth out the texture.
“There are unique challenges to create the perfect texture that’s creamy and rich, not icy or cold, with flavors or fresh cream and perfect sweetness,” said Cary Frye, a food technologist and vice president of the dairy-foods group whose personal memory centers on driving with her father in a Karmann Ghia to get peppermint-stick ice cream from Brigham’s in Massachusetts.
The variations come in the churning and flavoring. While some producers start with essentially the same milk and cream base, they adjust creaminess with the amount of air they mix in and set themselves apart by the ingredients they add for flavor.
And it is flavor where ice cream becomes personal.
Jeni Britton Bauer understands this more than most. She began selling ice cream in 1996 in Columbus, Ohio, playing with Midwestern flavors like corn and lingonberries and creating a salty caramel version that has been widely replicated.
She will sometimes head to one of her 16 Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams shops, pull on a hat to hide her identity and listen to customers in line.
“People get very emotionally connected to a flavor, and they rarely change,” she said. “But they want to share their favorite flavors with the people they came with. It becomes a way of telling a story about yourself. It’s really apparent with kids and teenagers. It’s very deep.”
Trips back to beloved ice-cream stands help parents explain themselves to their children. Sentimental favorites can be excellent or, in some cases, just OK. But it doesn’t matter.
“People form attachments to the places, whether or not people would consider these ice creams top of the line,” said Laura Weiss, author of “Ice Cream: A Global History” and a particular fan of the chocolate ice cream from the Magic Fountain in Mattituck on Long Island, N.Y.
The connection stems from the genetics of America’s ice-cream culture, she said. After the Civil War, druggists expanded operations to include soda fountains. There were thousands in New York. Even the smallest towns had one. At the time, soda fountains were among the few places women could go alone and were the site for countless wholesome first dates, Weiss said.
There are precious few real ice-cream parlors left, like Fentons Creamery in Oakland, Calif., or Aglamesis Bros. in Cincinnati, which has been around for more than a century.
Still, going out for an ice-cream cone is a great, inexpensive pleasure, where waiting in line, pondering which flavor to get and then racing to eat it before it melts is sweet social theater.
“In that shared experience you are sharing your childhood and your memories with your spouse or your children,” said Robin Davis, the former food editor of The Columbus Dispatch, who wrote a book on the history of Graeter’s, a much-loved brand from Ohio.
Ice cream, she said, makes it seem like everything will be OK — at least until the cone is finished.
“Have you ever seen anyone crying and eating ice cream?” she asked.