Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Real ice cream

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
"Where do you get the milk?" I asked, aware that it often comes from a can in these parts.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing; such delicacies as tres leches cake have evolved from these humble ingredients, and recently I had a delicious palito, literally "little stick," or popsicle, that boasted of being half mora (blackberry) sherbet and half frozen condensed milk.  
            "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?"
            "That's all."
            "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?"
            "No, sir."
            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
If you're wedded to factory ice cream, you might be disappointed in what the little old lady serves.  It's only lightly sweetened, and the texture is very inconsistent: creamy one bite, icy the next.  It's so soft that some vendors serve it with a straw, and it actually melts, which hardly any commercial ice cream does.  In that delicate balance between solid and liquid lies the magic of ice cream, how for the briefest of moments it defies the laws of physics.  There's nothing better than ice cream straight out of the churn, before it's fully frozen, or at the bottom of the bowl, as it's just begun to melt.  Years ago, when I lived in Florida, I took advantage of a sale and brought several half gallons of Breyers to the check out, where the girl thought this was a pretty funny purchase:
            "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 ice cream in Chimbo comes in one flavor, and it ain't Chunky Monkey, or Peanut Butter Brickle, or Moose Tracks.  I wasn't sure it had any flavoring at all until I asked one lady who allowed that she included canela (cinnamon).  The ice cream makers are cagey if not competitive in their insistence on how few ingredients they use.  You can actually taste the milk--it has that depth of flavor I haven't enjoyed since I got raw milk from a cow share, so creamy and yellow and eggnog-y that the first time I tried it I went searching for the nutmeg.   

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.

            "Where do you get the ice?" I asked the fellow.
            "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
Sunday is ice cream day in Chimbo--this lady hauls out the churn only once a week.  Two or three other folks also make ice cream, but if you don't catch them on Sunday, you won't get any.  As with many other things, we've forgotten how special ice cream is.  My grandmother loved few things as much as ice cream, which used to puzzle me, because she was an Olympian baker, turning out coffee cakes that disappeared almost before they were sliced at church suppers, birthday cakes that spoiled me for all others, and even when she could barely walk, whipping up delectable muffins seemingly out of nothing.  But she remembered when an icebox was literally that, and anything frozen was precious.  She refused to rush her ice cream, even though her brothers would steal it if she took too long.  The famous opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude reminds us of the wonder that is ice, and all things made with it:

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.


  1. I wonder if your kinship with the ice cream vendor is bolstered the memory of your grandmother's prowess in the kitchen. Sometimes we see the people who shaped us in other corners of the world.

  2. Wow, that REALLY is hand-churned ice cream! Totally agree about the unreality of First World countries where, instead of an economy logically grounded in the production of useful goods to meet actual needs, the most powerful industry is advertising, ceaselessly manufacturing pointless desires for useless non-needs in consumers through relentless, shamelessly emotionally manipulative brainwashing. (Though a real cashmere sweater is much realer than some synthetic blend...)