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Issue Seven / Photo Essay
“Ice cream, and early love, holds us in its spell long past childhood”

Innocent Epicures: An Ode to Ice Cream

Words By Nikaela Marie Peters Photographs by Laura Dart

Maybe we are in love with ice cream because it can melt and vanish quickly. Maybe we are seduced by the musical trucks that carry it. Our author sings its praises. 

From the very start of our lives and the very tips of our tongues, we consume and indulge in milk. It is our first taste. I imagine our taste buds springing into action, tiny tongues awakening. Taste buds were named thus because, according to 19th-century scientists, under a microscope they looked like the overlapping petals of a flower. These tongue buds, like their plant namesake, lie dormant in our mouths until they are freed to reach their potential—to blossom into something beautiful; to register a flavor; to bring a pleasure. And the taste buds at the very front of the line, the first buds on the branch, are the interpreters of sweetness. It is no wonder, then, that as soon as we can make a choice, we choose ice cream. As soon as we can speak, we scream. For ice cream.

Perhaps because cream is milk, we love ice cream. But also perhaps because vanilla is an orchid and chocolate is a tree. In other words, there is no rhyme or reason. Maybe the romance is in the fact that it melts—that the days when it is best are the days when its lifespan is shortest. Or maybe we are seduced by the musical trucks that drive down our streets selling it.

There is no addictive ingredient, no caffeine or nicotine, yet we remain transfixed. We don’t love ice cream because it is good or right or healthy, but because it is not. Because with ice cream there is no such thing as moderation. One lick reminds you of the whole cone; one spoonful reminds you of the bowl. You can’t save the rest for later. You can’t put in your pocket or hide it in your desk. Part of the point is to indulge in it—when it is in front of you—now. Maybe we love the creamy confectionery because it tells us what the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus told us: that what is pleasureful is what is good and right and healthy.

Epicurus, whose name is synonymous with those who seek pleasure and eschew pain, argued that there is not only an inherent individual benefit to the unnecessary abundances in life, but that there is a lasting and cultural benefit as well. Ice cream, therefore, is good for communities, for the world.

In the small town where my husband grew up, the longest-standing local restaurant is an ice cream parlor. The Hut, which also sells hamburgers and fries, is where you bring relatives when they come to visit. The Hut is where you go after swimming lessons and where you meet your friends after school. It’s where familiar faces ask how your kids are and about this year’s harvest while serving you a double scoop of mint chocolate chip. It is the center of town, a monument to a simpler time.

It might be that no other food or treat could ground a town this way. Ice cream is both a time of day and a dessert. Like tea, it’s both a snack between meals and something to finish off dinner. It’s a bike ride destination and a marker of the seasons. The Hut closes at the beginning of October, depending on the weather, and doesn’t open again till April at the earliest. It’s not spring until your first trip to the Hut.

It is surprising that ice cream comes from a recipe, that something that grounds small towns and childhoods and seasons could come from an abstract formula. Most other pleasures we epicures instinctively seek are organic: wine, tea, coffee, sex, sugar, youth. It would almost make more sense if ice cream had been discovered, by accident, like Champagne. But, there is a recipe. Ice cream is manipulated into being. There are egg yolks and specific freezing techniques and lots of whisking. Somehow from this recipe comes our first vice and weakness. Before cigarettes and sangria and crème brûlée, there is ice cream. Long before we fall in love with a human, we fall in love with ice cream. Ironically, when humans breaks our hearts later in life, we fall back on our first love. We try to soothe our broken adult hearts by returning to what made our childhood hearts soar: creamy, melting Rocky Road.

In the 1991 movie My Girl, Vada Sultenfuss is instructed to write a love poem. While adults in her class write poems about love and lust, Vada writes a simple, rhyming poem about her love for ice cream. Hers are the meanderings of an innocent heart. A heart that has not yet known heartbreak or grief. Vada writes an ode to ice cream because, in a way, all kids are epicures. They understand something basic that the rest of us have forgotten: ice cream makes our days happier, which in turn, makes our communities stronger, which, in the long run, makes the world go round.

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