I can’t recall when my journey first began, or even where the task of measuring first took root; nor can I deny the fact that it has been a sweet, rewarding and even “glorious” enterprise. While ice cream itself – in all its deserving glory – has been around for a long time, perhaps as early as ancient Greece in the form of flavored ice, the ice cream cone is a different story. The most often cited origin goes back to the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, at which a vendor (or two) introduced scoops of ice cream in cups made from left-over pieces of waffles folded into a conical shape when they ran out of paper ones. I no longer “buy” that story after examining evidence gathered by my friend Mike Exinger (*more about Mike later), giving the real credit to an Italian immigrant and Hoboken, New Jersey street vendor named Italo Marchioni who was selling ice cream in shaped waffle-cone cups to Wall Street pedestrians in New York as early as 1896, and whose patent on that invention was actually granted in 1903 – one year before the St. Louis World Fair! Now that we’ve uncovered the bona fides of the “cone”, it’s time to move on to the glorious dairy magic that fills that crunchy cavity.
While there is much to commend practically any ice cream – even that which starts out in a box-like container in the local supermarket and was likely produced in a continuous-flow production line operation designed for a mass market, often containing dozens of “enhancing” additives and imitation flavors before having extra air whipped in to produce greater volume – I long ago narrowed down my search for excellence to the small batch, “home-made” variety. Characterized by a high butterfat content - usually 14% or more - only natural and very fresh ingredients and direct sale to the customer in “fresh-from-the-press” waffle cones, these uniquely-American masterpieces of creamy opulence are worth every bit of the extra pocket treasure they cost.
New England has long nurtured a love affair with ice cream, and so it is no accident that several of my “winners” can be found there, beginning with Mountain Creamery, in Woodstock, Vermont. Capitalizing on their access to pure maple syrup, their Vermont Maple Walnut is a standout along with Black Raspberry, Toffee Crunch, and Myer’s Rum Raisin – a personal favorite. Moving seaward, we come to the coastal village of Damariscotta, Maine where Round Top Ice Cream has been “bringing them back” since 1924 with a choice of 40 flavors, from among which I discovered another flavor so unusual that I travel extra miles each time I’m in the area, just to renew my acquaintance with the only example of “Ginger Ice Cream” I’ve found anywhere! Not only does it have a fine creamy ginger flavor, but is filled with small bits of real candied ginger. And just one peninsula south of there lies the tourist town of Boothbay Harbor where the Down East Ice Cream Factory hits the proverbial nail on the head with their unbelievably-smooth Kahlua & Bailey’s Irish Cream flavor; a true “one-of-a-kind”.
At the risk of showing bias, I have left the best until last – perhaps because it is three thousand miles away from my starting point and took some time to discover – 200 years behind Lewis & Clark at that! I speak now of Zinger’s Homemade Ice Cream, in Seaside, Oregon, where Mike Exinger and his wife Mona have managed to bring together under one roof a hard-won knowledge of ice cream history, a commitment to creating an all-natural product, starting where other worthy entrepreneurs have left off, and sticking to a winning formula. Mike’s wide-ranging array of flavors all begin with an 18% butterfat base sweetened with organic cane sugar, and flavored with the best and freshest fruits, nuts, cocoa and other natural ingredients in quantities designed for rapid turnover. At any given time, there will be at least 24 varieties on the board, as they rotate through 40 in a season. And when the tourist population of the community eases off toward winter, so too do Mike and Mona; they refuse to work with “leftovers”, and know when THEY need a rest. Once again, my favorite flavor here is Rum Raisin (consistently the smoothest I have had anywhere), although I have to give high marks to a ZINGER specialty – New York Cheese Cake; one more GRAND SLAM hit!
NOTE: Of the ten leading states in per capita ice cream consumption, four are in New England. Utah ranks ninth. Washington, D.C. is the most ice-cream-eating city.
Mike Exinger, proprietor and ice cream-maker-extraordinaire serves up the author’s favorite Zinger’s Rum Raisin cone.