Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ice cream from another world

I had to take a friend to the airport today; this, plus the heat, made the perfect excuse to stop in "Little Beirut," aka Dearborn, to visit Shatila Bakery (http://www.shatila.com/). In addition to every permutation of baklava-like baked treats imaginable, as well as a wide array of French-style pastries, they make ice cream. Those who dismiss the Midwest as "whitebread" would do well to make a sojourn to li'l old Dearborn, where there are more Lebanese and Chaldean people than anywhere else outside the Middle East. They'd hear a lot of Arabic, and see a lot of women wearing hijab, but they'd also see a lot of olive-skinned people who look and act surprisingly "normal." If they're really lucky, they'll see Rima Fakih, who just returned to town after her yearlong reign as Miss USA.

It's not hard to find ice cream, of course; around here you can hardly avoid the little shacks that open around Mother's Day and close by Halloween, evidently trying to capitalize on their short season by providing quantity over quality, churning out one texture-less, artificially flavored glob of softserve after another. People who ought to know claim that some of these places are really special, but all I've found is 87 "flavors" of goo on a cone.
Shatila reminds me that there are basically two schools of ice cream ("hard" ice cream, I mean; let us never speak of softserve again): simple but intense vs. complicated but bland. Haagen-Dazs and Breyers epitomize the former, while Ben&Jerry's and Coldstone represent the latter. You can no doubt guess which side I (and Shatila) are on. Maybe people get taken in by the more-chunks-is-better school because they've forgotten what a wide range of simple flavors is possible, and how delectable each can be when done right. Shatila makes flavors that are too "exotic" for mainstream American creameries, but they make them really well. (The Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in New York, by contrast, makes many of the same tropical flavors, but you almost have to look at the labels to discern which you're eating.) Shatila sells their ice cream by the scoop or quart; the latter come in lively colored cartons, and most flavors are artificially colored, but you can easily close your eyes and know what you're eating.

The intense green of their pistachio is slightly off-putting, but the flavor makes a mockery of nearly every other iteration I've ever tried. By the quart it costs a dollar more than their other flavors, presumably because they pack in so many pistachios. Apricot almost pales in comparison, but it's so gratifying for such a flavor to be available at all, I'm not inclined to be super-critical. I think I remember being disappointed by mango (which also mysteriously costs extra) and pleasantly surprised by cantaloupe on a previous visit. Today for the first time I tried kashta (rosewater). Not being a fan of Turkish delight, I was prepared for disgust, but to the contrary, it was enchanting. I also tasted kashta with pistachio (a single flavor), which came pretty darn close to frozen nirvana.

It makes sense for a desert people to excel at ice cream, I suppose, and I appreciate the little Lebanese touches at Shatila, like free, self-serve cups of water, beautiful bathrooms, and sparkling cleanliness all befitting Islam, and an arid geography. Yet the world over, ice cream is much more common in cold climates. Americans are so awash in it as to become jaded, I think. I don't care how many crazy little bits and pieces Ben&Jerry's crams into theirs, or
how much garbage Coldstone offers to blend into theirs, the best ice cream I've ever had, bar none, was plain vanilla, served out of a hand-pumped churn cooled by a block of ice in a cart on the street in Kashgar, China. The exquisite caramel sauce proffered in glass bottles was almost a distraction. Unlike nearly all commercial ice cream, this tasted like an actual dairy product. And unlike even more commercial products, it melted naturally. Thus it refreshed the original meaning of the term: "iced cream" (as opposed to "sweet frozen paste that happens to involve dairy products").

Yesterday, while most people were poring over fireworks, I was agonizing over the ice cream aisle for a respectable vanilla to go with the local strawberries and blueberries I'd bought for a "flag" dessert. Breyers was always my standby, but a few years ago they started putting tara gum in. This may be technically "all-natural," but it ruins the texture. My grandma was really onto something when she used to wait for her ice cream to melt almost into soup: in the shadowlands between solid and liquid lies the hidden magic of ice cream. Guernsey, a local dairy, sells ice cream in old-fashioned rectangular cartons, but they corrupt it with one or more gums as well as the ubiquitous polysorbate 80. Ben&Jerry's is gum-free but too cool to make vanilla. Haagen-Dazs is, as far as I know, the only major producer left to make ice cream with the same ingredients you'd use at home--but their vanilla was absent from the shelves. I ended up with some fancy-pants gelato, because it was on fire sale, but it too contained gum--and turned out to be pretty anemic in flavor. (Full disclosure: Shatila ice cream also contains gum and preservatives.)

Ice cream is yet another victim of the conglomeration of food production. I'm thrilled to have Shatila in my neighborhood, but even it is pushing the "artisanal" label. Where do you even buy guar gum, let alone polysorbate 80? It's too bad, because making ice cream yourself is a pain, and requires special machinery. But you really can taste the labor: the stuff we used to crank by hand when I was a kid, layering in crushed ice and rock salt to make a mess of the kitchen, tasted different from what I've made recently in a Cuisinart. And this in turn tasted different from anything pre-packaged. Maybe ice cream should be a little harder to acquire, so we have at least an inkling of the wonder that must have greeted Marco Polo when he returned from China with his tantalizing tale of cream, kissed with sugar, served so cold it was almost solid.