Sasha's taster "flight" of ice cream at Mission Hill Creamery: nectarine, salted caramel, Turkish coffee, and brown sugar gingersnap. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

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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.

Amy Ettinger started research for her book, “Sweet Spot,” at Mission Hill Creamery, her neighborhood ice cream shop in Santa Cruz. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

“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.”

Mission Hill Creamery proudly displays the local sources of their ingredients. Ettinger says California ice creameries set themselves apart through their local sourcing. Many shops, including Mission Hill, use a premade base from Strauss Creamery. Owner Dave Kumec says it’s too expensive to make his own base, given pasteurization rules. “At the end of the day, it’s not —to me — worth it because all you’ve done is created the canvas. I’m going to paint on it anyway.” (Suzie Racho/KQED)

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.”

Dave Kumec runs Mission Hill Creamery. He’s calls his shop “farm to scoop” and spends a lot of time sourcing ingredients at local farmers markets. Still, Kumec says vanilla and chocolate are always the two most popular flavors, and they’re not from the local area. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

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.”

Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry and … Oyster? A Year of Ice Cream 28 July,2017Sasha Khokha

  • Robert A Martin

    You did a previous story on a woman suffering from Stage 4 breast cancer. Then next you did a story on a woman sampling many flavors of dairy, ice cream, not realizing the real connection between dairy and cancer.


Sasha Khokha

Sasha Khokha is the host of The California Report  weekly magazine program, which takes listeners on sound-rich radio excursions around the Golden State.

As The California Report’s Central Valley Bureau Chief for nearly a dozen years, Sasha brought the lives and concerns of rural Californians to listeners around the state. Sasha’s reporting helped exposed the hidden price immigrant women janitors and farmworkers may pay to keep their jobs: sexual assault at work — and helped change California law with regard to sexual harassment of farmworkers.  She’s won a national PRNDI award for investigative reporting, as well as multiple prizes from the Radio Television News Directors Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

She began her radio career in waterproof overalls, filing stories about the salmon fishery at Raven Radio in Sitka, AK. She has produced and reported for several documentary films. Calcutta Calling, about children adopted from India to Swedish-Lutheran Minnesota, was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Sasha is  a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Brown University, and is the mother of two young children.