Our local ice cream shop is quintessentially Midwestern, down to the friendly, miniscule psalm stamped on the back of the prepackaged pints and quarts you can buy in the freezer aisle of nearby grocery stores (“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” 118:24). On some swampy August nights the line is out the door, snaking around the sticky red benches, past drips of mint chocolate chip and vanilla congealing on the concrete. When you walk through the doors, the buffet of the air conditioning, arctic year-round, is a blessed relief. The shake mixing machines buzz and whir, punctuated by the thuds of thick silver freezer doors closing over dozens of flavors. Everything is red and white—walls, shiny square menu placards, flavor lists, tiles. The storefront is almost surgical in its blinding cleanliness and the clicking of its tools, scoops and spoons rather than scalpels.
Growing up, the smiling workers in their khaki pants, crisp white button down shirts (sometimes stained with smears of chocolate, or cherry bonbon, or blueberry), red aprons, and sensible shoes with non-marking soles seemed the epitome of maturity. How adult they appeared, armed with the knowledge of what was behind the tall counters that it would take me years to grow enough to see over. Later, I always knew someone working whenever I stopped by. The girl from marching band might make my shake one night, and the acne-spotted boy I once had a biology class with might scoop out the graham cracker ice cream for my sundae the next. Now when my fiancé and I silently stand in line, scheming over our next flavor combinations, I don’t know any of the faces. They seem childlike, possibly too young to handle the responsibility of mixing my Heath malt, or to remember that I want vanilla flavoring and not chocolate.
When I was too young to be indignant about the world of ice cream possibilities I was missing, I eagerly waited for my grandpa to return some nights when he would bring me back one of the Snoopy ice cream bars they still keep in a freezer case by the register.
One summer I vowed to try every flavor on the extensive list, testing dishes of gummy bear, lemon custard, and black raspberry after successful softball games before I lost my zeal over a scoop of fresh banana ice cream that reinforced my hatred of the fruit.
For two years in high school I dated a trumpet playing theater kid with long dirty blonde hair who introduced me to one of the flavor combinations that’s still in my regular rotation—a peanut butter cup malt with vanilla flavoring and a fresh brownie chopped up and mixed in.
My parents once drove four-and-a-half hours to visit me at college and surprised me with a shake that they had managed to transport without it melting in a cooler overfilling with ice and freezer packs. I gave one of my new friends in my freshman seminar a single bite after he expressed doubt that this was better than anything he’d ever had.
During more breakups, family fights, and moments of existential crisis than I could possibly recount, I have found myself in a parking lot that has scarce changed since my childhood, blowing my nose on my sleeve and deciding what ice cream cocktail would best help me lick my wounds.
As a self-proclaimed ice cream connoisseur, I have dutifully tested variations throughout the country, forcing my friends, family, and fiancé to stop in to local ice cream dives and big chains alike. I once flew overseas and experimented with shops in Ireland, Scotland, and England. No matter where I go, there is something lacking. The honeycomb gelato in England was exquisite and exotic as ice cream goes, and the cookie dough sundae I once ordered from a dairy farm turned dessert shop was the creamiest I’ve ever had. It’s not that other ice cream lacks flavor, but perhaps it’s the same attraction that other people have for high school sweethearts and hometown football games. Perhaps it’s the process of mixing in the memories and freezing them in the sweetness (or bittersweetness) of life lived here between the coasts.
In some ways more than others, ice cream included, there’s no place like home.