As I was situating myself at the bus stop to go to the next village over in search of coffee, a sweet little old lady who could have been my grandmother asked if I didn't want to try her ice cream. Then I noticed that in addition to pound cake on the table, there was a wooden barrel on the ground filled with ice and a stainless steel cylinder, just like the one we used when I was a kid--only bigger, and without the gear assembly or crank.
After reeling me in and chatting briefly, the señora excused herself and walked off with an old-fashioned aluminum milk pail in each hand, leaving her son (I presume) to serve my ice cream into a heavy glass stemmed bowl atop an enameled tin saucer.
|Bucket o' goodness|
"We have cows," the man said, as he scooped the thick yellowish stuff.
I laughed. What better answer could there be?
"What's in it besides milk and sugar?"
"Do you prepare it the night before?"
"Yes, you have to boil the milk very well, and then let it cool."
So boiled milk is the secret--for thickening, I suppose. In all the hoopla over ice cream vs. gelato vs. frozen yogurt, I've never seen a recipe suggest that, but why not?
"Are there any eggs?"
This answer surprised me, because the ice cream was about the color of eggnog. But I think we might have been talking at cross purposes, because another lady whose ice cream I tried also denied using "eggs" but then admitted to using yolks.
|A real mom and pop (or son) opersation|
"You really like ice cream, huh?" she challenged.
"Well, you know, it's frozen, so it keeps," I replied feebly.
But in a way she had a point; ice cream is better when it's fresh.
I do a game with my classes in which every student has to say his or her name and favorite flavor of ice cream. Year by year the answers get stranger: "cookie dough," "cake icing," "Superman," "blue moon." These aren't flavors, I sometimes dare to suggest; they're things, or ideas. I like cake icing as much as the next man, but I like it on cake, not reengineered into ice cream. Yet many of the classic flavors--strawberry, peach, chocolate chip mint, pistachio, cherry vanilla, coffee--are just as fanciful to many, because they've never had the unadulterated fruits, nuts, or herbs. Students dispute my assertion that there's no such thing as "blue raspberry," and more than once I've been so beleaguered by questions from a barista at Starbucks that I've been reduced to saying, "I'd like the coffee-flavored coffee, please." After smelling vanilla bean on the tree in Tanzania, I've never looked at extract the same way again.
|Yes, that's a cow's horn|
The "artisanal" label has really been rubbed raw in the last few years. Beyond nostalgia, it's exciting that some things are still made in a way simple enough to reveal their mode of discovery; that an individual can control the whole production process; and that everything from raw materials to finished product can be a single stream, close at hand. But it's more than that.
People often ask why I'm so drawn to poverty. The true answer is as simple as it is hard to explain: I go to the developing world because it's real. All that glitz and glamor stateside is fake, dishonest. What's the true cost of a vanilla latte? What really went in to a cashmere sweater? How many people have to sweat so one can enjoy A/C? What planet are the people in TV ads from? However elaborate the subterfuge, we in the "advanced" countries live off the exploitation of others. This quickly becomes obvious when you go where such basics as electricity and running water can no longer be taken for granted. Hand-churned ice cream is emblematic of the forgotten reality: no mysterious ingredients, no long-distance transport, no unknown people, no hidden costs, no branding.
"From a machine. We used to get it from Chimborazo, but not anymore. Only Riobamba still gets ice from Chimborazo."
A 20,564-foot inactive volcano, Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador. Due to the equatorial bulge, its summit is the farthest point on the Earth's surface from the center of the Earth. For this reason it was long thought to be the highest mountain in the world.
Suddenly a simple cup of ice cream is part of a major excursion--to think that this could involve llama trains, or burros, and teams of men scaling a volcano to haul back a piece of a glacier just so I can have a snack. So much work! And yet, if you really calculate everything needed to run a freezer--the steel and copper, the freon, the miles of electric cables, the coal or oil or hydroelectric dam--is it any easier?
|Real glass, real plate, real spoon, real dairy product|
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
In Michigan we take ice for granted, cursing and resenting it half the year, and dreading it the rest. But most of the world's population lives close enough to the equator that ice must be sought, often with great effort. Chimbo is cool enough that I don't pine for ice cream, the way I did in Kashgar (the only other place I've been where they make ice cream the old-fashioned way: see previous post). And Chimbo is small enough, and isolated enough, that there are many things it lacks. How much more flattering, then, for someone to offer this little cup of magic for a mere coin.