Friday, June 22, 2012

Ep4: To Uncle Bob, Wherever You Are

Entering New England, I couldn't help by be reminded of a few memorable sweets I consumed during the summer of 2005, the same summer Marisa Tomei and I became soulmates at Williamstown Theatre Festival. One such establishment resided less than a half mile from the Connecticut border. The frozen treats were excellent, but the owner made it even more memorable...

“What’s in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave?” I asked.

Looking annoyed, Uncle Bob, the large and intimidating proprietor responded, “Did you read the sign?”

I hadn’t noticed the sign, which said 1600 Pennsylvania Ave was a hazelnut chocolate ice cream. (It was more nutty texture-wise and creamy flavor-wise than your typical gianduja.) The origin of the flavor's unlikely name made me curious, but I decided to skip it since I'd already annoyed the man. “Okay, I’ll take a scoop of that and a cup of Black Raspberry ice.”

“Did you read the sign?”

Another sign? Hmm...They were out of Black Raspberry. Popular place. Must be the service, I thought.

Despite this rough beginning, Uncle Bob and I grew to have a good rapport over my many visits to Uncle Bob’s 40 Heavenly Flavors in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The ice cream was good, but the ice was perfect. I’d usually order both…and then go back for seconds on ice. Out of 40 flavors, my favorites were the classics: orange and cherry. I would savor my treats under a shady tree on the benches in the back, enjoying the cool break from my AC-deficient Toyota van, facing a calming field of green. Yes, everything about the Uncle Bob's experience made the trip worth it, even the man, whose gruff impatience with oblivious customers somehow made him appealing. Perhaps it was because he looked and sounded like kin to Tony Soprano, but spent his days selling frozen treats that came in every color of the rainbow.

“Don’t get the blue,” Uncle Bob mentored.

Obediently, I consented, “Okay.”

“We have black raspberry, red raspberry and blue raspberry. All my flavors are good except for the blue. Don’t get the blue.”

My puzzled look prompted him to continue.

“Kids love blue. They don’t even know what flavor they’re ordering. Their parents say, ‘Whaddaya want?’ They say, ‘I want the blue.’”

When he started sharing nuggets of wisdom like this with each visit, I figured I was on Uncle Bob's good side and could ask him for a dinner recommendation nearby. Expecting a concise answer, I instead got detail upon detail. As he directed me across the border into Connecticut, Uncle Bob alternated between closing his eyes to concentrate and staring me straight in the face to make sure I was getting it all. I paid close attention. While he seemed eager to help, I really didn't want to have to ask him to repeat himself. He continued until he had told me some of the restaurant's history and the name of the waitress who worked there on weekends. He didn’t seem to mind (or notice) that his lengthy recommendation was holding up the line. (You know, for the business he ran.) That was Bob for ya.

Internet research leads me to believe Uncle Bob's 40 Heavenly Flavors is no longer in business. I found a few websites that mentioned it and they all list the same number that's no longer in service. Uncle Bob, wherever you are, know that I still think of your Italian ice, your oddly-named ice cream and your east coast hospitality seven years later.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Ep3: Ice Cream Rivalry: Eder's vs. Sunset











During our two night stay at Crystal Lake Camps, it was a given that we would end up at Eder’s Ice Cream. As I’ve mentioned before, Eder’s is a place of legend at camp…which is why I was surprised to learn of a rival parlor, Sunset Ice Cream, in nearby Williamsport. In the “scoop and let scoop” world of ice cream, rivalries are not very common outside the grocery store freezer. (The most notable one I knew of was in Richmond when Ben & Jerry’s viciously opened a shop two doors down from Bev's, the much beloved local joint. Bev’s won, Hindu dairy gods be praised.) I couldn’t deny that I was intrigued. So the next morning when Boren and I got back on the road, we headed straight for Sunset.

Who doesn’t love a good rivalry? Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Eder’s vs. Sunset. Would it be the raucous brawl of cross-town interleague baseball? Just imagine your typical unwashed White Sox fan exiting Sunset only to have their cone smacked to the ground. As the assailants drive away, the blubbering Sox fan hears them chanting, “EEE-DER’S! EEE-DER’S!” Or would it be the all-fun-and-games-til-someone-gets-stabbed West Side Story dance battle? After a rousing chorus of “Keep it cool, boy,” the Eder’s employees get coned by the Sunset Sharks. I’ll let your imagination decide what “getting coned” means.

What I found was two local establishments, each fattening the masses with joy, each in their own way. Other than that, the two shops had very little in common. To help you understand, I created a helpful spreadsheet, thereby earning Charles Simonyi more money toward commercial space travel.




Verdict: Try both! They each serve up equally ENORMOUS servings of homemade ice cream. How could you lose? Still, if you can only try one, I recommend Eder's.

Ep2.5: Ohio Interlude & A Pennsylvania Pause

Akron is a managably-sized city with a walkable downtown that features two centerpieces: an amphitheater and a minor league baseball stadium. (Go Aeros!) While I searched for the subconscious inspiration for Bee Thousand, Guided By Voices' musical masterpiece, Boren located some Maple Bacon Doughnut FroYo at a local dessertery. We also stumbled upon an Irish pub that shares my last name, Brubaker's.

Next up was a stop at Penn State's Berkey Creamery, another favorite of "best ice cream" lists. The experience was certainly blog-worthy, but a man of my genius shouldn't have to repeat himself.

After Berkey Creamery, we drove to Hughesville, PA for a two-night stay at Crystal Lake Camps. As a camper, volunteer and visitor, this secluded spot has been a refuge for me during different times of my life. We were greeted by pitch black night and a welcoming invitation for tea and Bananagrams from my friends Jasmine and Tim, a married couple who staff the camp year-round.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Ep2: Most Definitely Not Less Than

A blurry beacon of brumal bounty.
Since first hearing of Graeter's from one-time guest blogger Jill, I've noticed the company gets mentioned in almost every conversation I have with people about "favorite ice cream." But why trust my friends and acquaintances? Oprah, one of the company's celebrity fans, is rumored to have their Butter Pecan shipped directly to her mouth. Beyond this vote of confidence, Graeter's is frequently featured on best ice cream lists in travel and food magazines/websites. Needless to say, they had a lot to live up to as Boren and I, having driven for seven hours that day, barreled into Columbia a mere 14 minutes before they closed.

Graeter's has many shops, but we targeted this particular location because it offered free self-guided tours of the factory. Driving up, it was immediately clear that the parlor might actually be larger than the factory. Still, after a painstaking amount of consideration was put into sampling and ordering, the tour provided all the information I needed to better understand the happy dance happening in my mouth. Here, I'll let you copy my notes:

Their ice cream is made using the French Pot process, which is a small-batch method similar to home ice cream makers. The main benefit of this inefficient process is a denser, creamier ice cream with less air whipped into it. Tasting the product, I couldn't deny that the texture of Graeter's ice cream was different, smoother and more stuck to itself. But even better than the texture of the ice cream was that of the chocolate chips. I read that instead of using solid chunks of chocolate, Graeter's pours in liquid chocolate. By doing this, the chocolate chips in flavors like Black Raspberry Chip (my favorite) and Chocolate Chocolate Chip are soft, yielding and far more flavorful than the chalky snap of most chocolate chunks.

After my foray into speed learning, I treated myself to a second helping of ice cream, effectively making myself both the last and next-to-last customer before closing for the evening. As we made our exit, Boren and I pumped some Kanye and sped our way to Akron.

---

Not near Ohio? I am elated to report that Graeter's packaged pints have become more widely available this year. Since I took this road trip with Boren, I have found the pints at both Fresh Market and Kroger grocery stores. Use the Graeter's store finder to locate some near you. Of the flavors offered, nearly all the grocery store varieties feature their signature chocolate chips, including Black Raspberry Chip! It may be more expensive than other luxury ice creams, but remember it's denser! (According to the tour, a pint of Graeter's should actually weigh more than a pint of another brand.) Besides, you really should treat yourself now and again...and now. For best results, consume immediately upon arriving home from the grocery store, when it is less hard and closest to the quintessential French Pot texture.

Ep1.5: Illinois Interlude

After leaving Chicago, my co-pilot Boren and I foraged south. Originally we had planned to go west (young man) into St. Louis to enjoy both the zany funhouse/playground that is the City Museum and Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a frequent member of "Top 10 in the Country" lists. But a detour of, oh, 6 or so hours seemed an ill-advised beginning to a lengthy road trip. Instead our first stop was visiting my Uncle John and Aunt Lisa in Chatham, IL, where we fed horses and snacked on pastries from Apple Barn. From there we traveled to the University of Illinois, alma mater of Uncle John, my dad and their sister, Polly. In Champaign, we snuck into the football stadium and ate at Fat Sandwich Company where we gorged on a donut burger, among other things.

Just a burger with a sugary bun, but worth trying.
Our next destination: the Graeter's factory in Columbia, OH...

Monday, June 4, 2012

Ep1: One Last Taste Before I (Chica)go

Sitting in a rental car before a 1,459 mile journey out of Chicago, my stomach had an important decision to make. What final food item should it consume before skipping town indefinitely? I hit the gas and headed to the Ukranian Village. I needed to have Black Dog Gelato's Goat Cheese Cashew Caramel, the best ice cream/gelato flavor in Chicago, one more time.

This destination, the first of many, is out of the way,* nearly an hour's distance on straight shot pub tran direct from my neighborhood. Still, my pre-rental car self had been known to make the trip--and justify counter-intuitive detours--for their tasty and imaginative gelato flavors. Gelato traditionally is simple: milk and egg with whatever ingredient (chocolate, hazelnut, mixed berry) gives the flavor its name. And though many American gelaterias dodge this convention, it rarely gets more creative than mimicking popular ice cream flavors. Black Dog Gelato is a game changer, frequently offering more oddball gourmet flavors than the traditional gusti.

It is worthy of note that my favorite flavor certainly isn't the only all-star in their freezer. I enjoy most anything they have on their ever-evolving menu from the unique (Avocado Cinnamon, which awakened the dormant dessert quality of avocados) to the simple (Chocolate, which explodes with genuine chocolate flavor as a proper gelato should) to the seasonal (Apple Cider Sorbet, which despite its autumnal qualities is always a good thing). But on this particular day, I was a man on a mission. Goat Cheese Cashew Caramel or bust.

To describe eating this flavor in earthly vocabulary seems unbefitting of the transcendental experience. It would be better if instead I lead you in some guided meditation. Let's get started. Find an active and comfortable sitting posture--perhaps the lotus position--take some deep, cleansing breaths and close your eyes. In your own time, visualize yourself as a cashew living in a gelateria. You've had a long day and grow increasingly weary from the ceaseless slander you receive. ("Nut!" "Legume!" Can't they see I'm a seed?) You feel the heaviness of the day pulling you down, down, down. All you want is to rest on something softer and lighter than a cheesecake. You notice the goat cheese has your sleep number. You feel the billowy goat cheese mattress envelop you while you are pulled down, down, down. In one final motion, you pull a silky layer of caramel over you and drift into sleep, content to drown in comfort. Later, you wake up to a quick and painful death by mastication.

That about sums it up. But eventually, we all must come out of our gelato-induced state of heightened perception. I got back in the rental car, packed it high with an un-Buddhist tie to my material possessions and began my wonderful winding trip to Boston.


*Chicago residents. Since I took this trip, Black Dog has opened a second location on the northside near Belmont and Damen. Check the website, linked above.