There are some days at work when I have to pinch myself. I get to do this as part of my job? Like digging into a giant bowl of ice cream while conducting an interview.
I got to do that recently when I sat down to chat with author Amy Ettinger. She spent a year researching, tasting and delving into the history and sociology of ice cream for her new book Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America.
She started her journey at Mission Hill Creamery, her neighborhood ice cream shop in Santa Cruz. She says locally owned, artisanal ice cream shops in California, like Mission Hill, stand out for the effort they make to use local, organic ingredients.
She also said California is home to many “oddball” ice cream producers, who are on the cutting edge when it comes to offering unique flavors. Like the oyster or foie gras ice cream Ettinger tried during her research.
“We are definitely on the fringe when it comes to the extreme flavors,” she says of California.
I met up with Ettinger at Mission Hill Creamery. We took a tour of their kitchen, then talked ice cream — drippy, delicious treats in hand.
Some highlights from our conversation:
On where her love of ice cream comes from:
“I grew up with two older brothers in Silicon Valley, and we were always fighting about something, little petty things like who got to control the TV and who got to sit where. And my dad would bring out the big tubs of generic ice cream, the kind with the big plastic handles, at the end of the day, and we would finally quiet down.
“We’d sit down in our little spots and pour as much Hershey’s syrup as we wanted on top of it and get the cherry on top and just dig in and enjoy. I always associated ice cream after that as this comfort, this food that we could enjoy together.”
On her grandma’s lone vice:
“I had a kind of interesting grandma who was a health nut before there were health nuts. She was in her 70s doing juice fasts and walking 5 miles a day, had given up sugar, would not allow any kind of chocolate or anything in her house. But when she came to visit and we’d go around the neighborhood, she would see the local ice cream shop and she would have to go in. She could not resist.
“And as a kid, watching somebody who was so disciplined and so regimented, just watching that fall away — it was wonderful. It was the most special moments I actually had with my grandma because it was her being her actual self and just allowing herself to enjoy herself.”
On learning that most ‘artisanal’ ice cream shops use a pre-made base made elsewhere:
“I was shocked. I just had this image of these ice cream chefs just slaving away in the back mixing their milk, cream, sugar and eggs like you do at home. And when I stepped in the back of the shop and I saw they’re not doing that, I was surprised.
“I think I have a better understanding of where the art can come in from using a prepackaged base, but I do still wish that places were more upfront about it. If you’re calling yourself homemade or artisanal that’s fine, but then let everybody know that that means different than what I think the consumer thinks it means.”
On trying oyster ice cream in Los Angeles:
“I was dreading it. I mean I really was dreading it. But when I tasted it I had this short circuit in my brain where I literally did not know whether I hated it or loved it. It was just so strange to me …
“I did not like the oyster ice cream. The chef read the book right before it came out and he sent me an email saying, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t like oyster ice cream.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, you did put oysters in my ice cream. How did do you think that was going to go?’ I am glad that I tried it, and it was Dolley Madison’s favorite flavor.”
On why people shouldn’t be afraid to try more offbeat flavors of ice cream:
“Back in the day we were eating more savory ice creams. It was much more common in the late 19th century to have things like asparagus ice cream, Parmesan ice cream or rye bread ice cream.
“Our taste buds shifted. We became really conservative. Now as adults, if you’re used to eating chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, it’s hard to push those boundaries. But I would encourage people to do it. You learn something about yourself, and also your preconceptions about food, by trying something that you never expect to like.”