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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 22, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Ice cream scoops, melon salad, and kid flix

When I was a kid, there were three kinds of ice cream. There was the kind my folks bought at the grocery store. It came in the form of a brick, and it was either brown, white, or neapolitan: brown, white, and pink. The brown tasted something like chocolate, the pink tasted kind of like medicine, and the white had no taste at all. It was called "vanilla" and anything that had no flavor and seemed to be nothing-in-particular was called vanilla from then on. The best use for store-bought ice cream was for my father to put it in a big pot with milk and chocolate powder and malt powder and mix it into a malt, which was better than any I've ever paid money for.

The second kind of ice cream seeped out of a machine at Dairy Queen or Tastee Freeze or Arctic Circle and was either brown or vanilla. Its main virtue was that it was very cold, very sweet, and it would rot my teeth, according to my parents, which I thought was a very good idea since they were falling out anyway and the process of losing a tooth was full of pain and the taste of blood. Apparently the tooth-rotting feature of the ooze-out-of-the-machine ice cream was so slow-acting that I ended up paying the full measure of pain for losing all my baby teeth.

The third kind of ice cream was the real thing. When I was a kid in Santa Clara, California, back in the late fifties and early sixties, real ice cream was worth driving up Edy's in Palo Alto for, or, later, over to Los Gatos to buy it at the brand new Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors.

That ice cream had substance. You got less of it, but every bite was full of flavor and cream. Baskin-Robbins had a sign on their wall: "There is nothing in this world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little more cheaply, and those who consider price alone are this man's lawful prey."

I took that slogan to heart. If you want something good, you have to be willing to pay the price for it.

Unfortunately, a lot of other people paid no attention to that idea, which is why VHS won out over Betamax, for instance, and Word over WordPerfect.

Now, in those days they served Baskin-Robbins ice cream in perfect ball-shaped scoops. They weren't very big, but to me it was just the right amount of ice cream of each flavor. You could get a triple -- chocolate chip, chocolate mousse royale, and pralines and cream -- and you could savor all three without giving yourself a heart attack from the fat content of the ice cream.

Then Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's started serving huge scoops with about three times the volume of those old 31 Flavors scoops. It changed the public's expectations. People would go into Baskin-Robbins and suddenly the scoops looked tiny, as if they'd been made with a melon baller. In vain did the ice cream servers explain that you were paying about the same price for the same amount of ice cream. People thought they were being cheated if they didn't get huge scoops. So Baskin-Robbins gave in.

But they still have those original-size scoops. They call them "child-size." And that's what I order whenever I got to Baskin-Robbins. Not for nostalgia, but because the "regular" scoops are too darn big. They're too big at Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs stores, too. To get three flavors with scoops that size you end up with so much ice cream that if you ate it all, you'd turn into lard on the spot.

That pressure toward big scoops continues even at Cold Stone, where, when you ask for a "small" -- which is the only size I can finish in the same day that I ate anything else at all -- the clerks are forced (as a condition of employment) to demand that you get a larger size for only a few cents more. In vain do I politely say, "I would like to have what I ordered." Any kind of verbalization at all provokes them into a long explanation about how it's such a bargain for me to buy the larger size.

I used to answer their pleas that I save money at their expense, "It's not a bargain if you give me so much ice cream that I puke." But this seemed to offend other customers -- apparently their vivid imaginations made it impossible for them to eat anything at all after picturing such a thing -- so now I give the only answer that seems to work. I shake my head firmly, my mouth set, and then I look away from the server until he or she stops begging me to "save money" by ordering more than I want.

In Europe, where the people and cars and everything else are smaller, they understand about scoops of ice cream. Admittedly, what they serve isn't ice cream at all -- there isn't necessarily any cream at all in their "glace" (France), "gelato" (Italy), or "sorvete," (Brazilian; and yes, I know, Brazil isn't in Europe. Get a life). But it's mostly made right there at the store where you buy it, and it's smooth and flavorful and they serve it in tiny scoops so you can pile on flavors and still end up with a manageable amount of dessert.

I'm an American. Most of the time, I think bigger is better. I drive a Crown Vic because I can't afford a Town Car, and if they made a bigger car than that, then that's the one I'd covet. I think the freeway between Greensboro and Charlotte and between Greensboro and Raleigh should be fourteen lanes wide and the highway patrol ought to ride around in tanks to crush cars going the speed limit in the lefthand lanes.

But when it comes to ice cream, smaller scoops are more. More flavors. More enjoyment.

Tonight, after a superb dinner in one of the greatest restaurants in the world -- Campanile in Los Angeles -- my friends and I drove to Santa Monica and found a miraculous parking place within a mile of the beach and walked to Angelato's on Arizona, just half a block east of the Third Street Promenade.

Angelato's is Italian gelato of a quality to rival anything I've had in Italy -- and that's saying a lot. Still, it has an American spin: Though the scoops are the right size, they unfortunately give you a scoop and a half of each flavor you pick, which means that instead of three flavors, I can only get two and still have the right size dessert. But that's ok -- close enough.

The gelato is served either in cones (which I abhor) or the most amazing disposable cups that look vaguely like Fostoria glass. You almost want to save them and take them home, though I'm sure they're actually really cheap and probably made from recycled earthworms or something. What matters is they look and feel wonderful as you're eating your gelato.

The flavors are amazing. A papaya flavor that's like eating the fruit at the peak of ripeness. A mango-peach combination that was amazing. If their stracciatella doesn't have enough chocolate and their pistachio has too many nuts (why can't they just give us the pistachio flavor and leave out the lumpy tasteless nut fragments?), that just proves I'm probably too fussy.

The weird thing is they make you pay before you order. So you can't decide at the last minute to have three flavors instead of two. Annoying. But they do let you taste up to six different flavors -- which sounds limiting until you remember that they are enforcing this limit on the forty people in line ahead of you, which will make you grateful, since it's tempting to try to taste every single one of the hundred flavors on display.

When my wife and daughter and I first discovered the place a couple of days ago, it was early afternoon on a weekday, and there were only a few other customers. But in the evening, the place is packed.

They keep the gelato cold enough that it holds its shape the whole time you're eating it; but, unlike Baskin-Robbins, they keep it soft enough that the servers don't end up with muscles like the guys I saw doing gymnastics on the rings. I have a friend who used to work at Baskin-Robbins, and she says that they built up so much muscle scooping the glacial ice cream that they could shoulder cars aside crossing the street.

As for those of you who are wondering why I'm reviewing a gelato store on the left coast -- in the People's Republic of Santa Monica, no less, which is about as opposite from Greensboro as you can get -- the answer is simple. There is no chance, zero, none, zilch, that this store will fail to become a chain and spread across America. The quality is so high, the selection so good, and the scoops so small that it can't help but succeed everywhere.

*

By sheer coincidence, right next door to Angelato's, in one of my favorite quirky kitchen/dining room stores, I found that Oxo, which already made the best ice cream scoop in the world, has improved the design.

Keeping the nearly-pointed tip that makes it the winner for smooth scooping, they have added a push button to eject the ice cream from the scoop. I immediately acquired one for our arsenal of ice cream scoops, and began buying more, which I will force on anyone at whose house I might someday be called upon to serve ice cream.

Now all that's left is for them to make ice cream scooping an Olympic event. I'm ready. I mean, if twirling strips of cloth and synchronized swimming can be Olympic events, I should be able to get in for something actually useful, like one-handed toenail clipping or charcoal barbecue lighting or, of course, competitive ice cream scooping. Judged on speed, roundness of scoop, and lack of spilling and dripping, I think I could get a 9.5 against any competition.

*

Meanwhile, let me tell you about the strange and wonderful salad I had at Campanile, because there's a chance that you can make up something like it at home. It's a spicy melon-and-shrimp salad consisting of small canteloupe pieces (actually, it wasn't canteloupe, but that's as close as we can get in North Carolina) and medium-sized cooked shrimp sliced in half down the middle. The ratio of melon to shrimp is about five to one. Add a few mint leaves, some chopped chives, extremely thin sliced cucumber, and a scattering of short arcs of a red onion with some real bite to it, and then toss it all in a light vinaigrette with some finely minced chili peppers in it.

That isn't exact, because it's not like they gave me a class -- that's just what I could taste. And I can't be more specific about the peppers -- you'll just have to experiment and see.

The combination is so unusual, but the result so brilliant, that I had to pass it on. We'll be trying to duplicate it at our house, you can be sure.

*

Because I'm in Los Angeles directing the rehearsals of a play, I haven't had a chance to see any movies at all. But my ten-year-old has filled in for me, I'm happy to report. She and my wife saw two movies last week, and here, in its entirety, is my daughter's succinct and, my wife assures me, completely accurate review:

"I have seen 2 movies this week that I think you would want to put in your column. The first one is the Yugi-oh movie. Great only to the people who love the series and the card game. The other one is Princess Diaries 2. WONDERFUL!"

This was her first published review. The next generation is getting into position ...

*

One of the gifts I got for my birthday was a book called Orson Blasts Off!, written and illustrated by Raúl Colón. Needless to say, I was given this book because the title character rides in a spaceship and has my first name. But it turns out also to be a delightfully illustrated, delightfully conceived children's book, and I recommend it highly for those of you who have small children who make you read the same picture books to them over and over and over and over again. This one will not drive you insane anywhere near as quickly as most.

And that is very high praise.


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