Recently I discovered that I can no longer eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s without serious digestive repercussions. I have never been lactose intolerant or had any other dietary restriction or need, but on a Friday night a few weeks ago after downing an entire pint of Americone Dream, I found myself planted on the toilet, praying for the sweet release of death.
As someone who has been trying to lose weight for some time, this discovery should be a welcome one–a craving for a pint of ice cream can now be quickly subdued by the reminder that I will spent a significant amount of time testing the limits of my house’s plumbing–but it kind of annoys and saddens me because I’ve been eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for more than 30 years. Whatever middle age is starting to do to my body in these days of sleep apnea, anxiety, and gout, has now claimed one of my favorite desserts.
Ice cream in general has had a constant presence in my life since I was little. My parents usually had a half-gallon of some sort of ice cream–Breyer’s, Edy’s, or the abomination known as Sealtest Ice Milk–in the freezer; birthday cakes were always from Carvel; and I spent many nights of my formative years eating sundaes at our local Friendly’s. But truly the only thing resembling a scoop shop in the greater Sayville area was the Baskin-Robbins on Sunrise Highway and Oakdale-Bohemia Road, a store too far away to reach by bike. The names Ben & Jerry were completely unknown to me until a family vacation in 1987.
Arctic Dreams was an independently owned ice cream shop in New London, New Hampshire, which is one of those small towns in new England that you pass by or drive through on your way to somewhere else. My parents rent a cabin on Kezar lake, which is just south of New London in North Sutton, a town that literally has one intersection, and at least a few times ever year we would head up to New London for a meal at Pizza Chef followed by ice cream at Arctic Dreams. It happened so often that it became a tradition, even though Pizza Chef was one of the few restaurants in New London where you could take a family of picky kids who could be real pains in the ass when it came to what was on the menu. Then again, very few kids aren’t pains in the ass about at least something.
Anyway, I can’t remember if the food at Pizza Chef was any good–the fact that a Google street view shot had it still open as of 2014 with the same 1980s-looking logo on the sign suggests they’ve been doing something right–but walking into Arctic Dreams that first time was a revelation. The place was cold (you could expect that from an ice cream shop) and instead of the constant hum and pull of soft serve machines I’d been used to from Carvel, there was a billboard-sized list of ice cream flavors and the smell of freshly made waffle cones. My ten-year-old mind was completely blown the moment I first stepped into the place and I just stood there for at least a full minute reading every flavor on that board until I eventually settled on what would become my all-time favorite scoop shop variety: vanilla chocolate chunk. No, not mint chocolate chunk, but vanilla ice cream with huge chunks of chocolate.
Even though I wanted a waffle cone stuffed full of ice cream, I was probably crabbed at to “just get a cup”–I was a notoriously sloppy eater and we could finish cups faster in order to beat the imaginary traffic back to the lake–the trips to Arctic Dreams were some of the best things about those vacations. Sure, there were trips to tourist destinations, days spent rowing and swimming in the late, and tours of the campus of Dartmouth College that were truly memorable, but even when I was at my most surly level of teenager, the ice cream was worth it.
But I didn’t get to be planted on my toilet at midnight doing an impromptu ab workout while slowly realizing I did this to myself by visiting an ice cream place in New Hampshire in the mid-1980s. It was the pint, that package of goodness now ubiquitous to the supermarket that 30 years ago was a novelty. Ben & Jerry’s introduced their pints in 1980 and the packaging was so lo-fi, I would have believed it if you told me that they printed the labels by hand in the back of Arctic Dreams. A cartoon drawing of a guy making ice cream was on the front and you could tell what flavor you were buying by reaidng the lid, which also had a picture of Ben and Jerry. There was something special about the Ben & Jerry’s pint, just like their competitor, Haagen-Dazs, made their pints seem like indulgence beyond the basic bitch half gallons of Breyer’s chocolate and vanilla you were fishing out of an icebox at Waldbaum’s.
When I hit my twenties, that novelty wore off, and the pint was more or less a standard-issue single serving. Oh sure, the nutritional label on the pint says that a serving is half a cup and that meant that four people coud share that pint of Half-Baked who probably sat at home eating gallons of the stuff while playing three video games simultaneously and barking commands at his parents. So I made up for this childhood injustice by buying whatever the hell I wanted whenever the hell I wanted no matter how slow my metabolism got.
And you’d think that because Ben & Jerry’s was bought by Unilever in 2000 and therefore became even more widely available, getting the right pint would be one of the easiest things in the world. I mean, it was if you weren’t picky, and there were times when I would choose the Helvetica that is Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (Ben & Jerry’s very first flavor, by the way, is vanilla, the Times New Roman of ice cream; the jury is still out on which flavor is comic sans). But then there were those times when I didn’t want just any ice cream and if I were to indulge a sweet tooth and take the calorie hit, I was going to do it at mach two with my hair on fire by wolfing down a pint of Brownie Batter.
The problem often was that not every place carried the same flavors and some of the more limited batches could only be found in a few select stores. At the height of my Ben & Jerry’s love, I had committed to memory exactly where I needed to go for what. For instance, the Harris Teeter in Pentagon City had vanilla caramel fudge but if I wanted a pint of Festivus (The Flavor for the Rest of Us), I had to drive to the Shoppers Food Warehouse at Potomac Yard. And I wanted some sort of limited edition batch that I actually read about in the news, I had to Indiana Jones it by constructing The Staff of Ra so I could figure out which Giant within a five-mile radius carried Marsha Marsha Marshmallow or something.
Of course, such quests had fleeting rewards and over the years, I got more interested in expanding my waistline via cookies and cake, which I’ll now have to stick to lest I turn my digestive tract into the very bowels of hell. Then again, you never know … I may want to dance with The Devil again.