Though summer doesn't actually end until Sept. 22, for many people, the passing of Labor Day signals the unofficial official end of summer, or what I like to think of as Ice Cream Season. Summer, it seems, is the one time of year when it is socially acceptable to gorge on ice cream, and everyone does it -- at family barbecues and sporting events, at street festivals and roadside stands. In fact, what would be considered gluttonous behavior in, say, February, is almost expected in the summer.
Then, the days grow shorter. The evening air turns chilly. Roadside ice cream stands board up their windows. Normal, hardworking Americans return to their office cubicles where they eat sensible, well-balanced lunches. And I am left to wander the streets alone in search of a place to buy a chocolate and rainbow sprinkle waffle cone filled with soft serve chocolate vanilla twist.
I've always been this way. When I was a kid, I would do anything for ice cream. Countless times, the promise of ice cream lured me off the floor of my mother's LTD and into the doctor's office for a strep test. It enticed me to eat salmon patties, to sit quietly through hours-long concertos, to go nicely to bed. Once, when my cone of soft serve fell onto the ground outside a drive-in, I sobbed so uncontrollably that the owner bolted out with a replacement cone which, considering my distraught state, he gave me for free.
Later, when I was a teenager, ice cream consoled me throughout any number of even more traumatic incidents -- failing chemistry, getting busted for forging doctor's excuses for school, discovering that my first real boyfriend, a saxophone player, was sleeping with the first chair flautist.
Then, in 1986, I was visiting college friends in Chapel Hill when one evening. In between a meal of chicken gyros and the Purple-Jesus-fueled haze to follow, we stopped in at a little ice cream shop on Franklin Street. It was the first Ben and Jerry's in North Carolina, and the line spilled out the door and down the sidewalk. When it was finally our turn to order, I settled on a double scoop of White Russian in a sugar cone, and right then and there, I fell in love with coffee, with cream and sugar, with Ben and Jerry and the entire liberal, green, billboard-less state of Vermont.
There was something extraordinary about the taste and texture -- the soothing creaminess, the way the sugar made the coffee less bitter, and the coffee made the sugar less sweet. It tasted like 19 years old and tie-dye dresses and my best friend's dorm room plastered with Led Zepplin posters and reeking of weed. It tasted like Youth itself, and I was ruined. Suddenly, every other ice cream I had ever tasted was a disappointment in retrospect.
For years after that, I would eat no other ice cream, but my devotion to Ben and Jerry did not stop there. I came to embrace everything cool and liberal and Ben-and-Jerryish. I became a vegetarian and joined Greenpeace and PETA. I wore ripped jeans and handmade wooden clogs and earrings shaped like peace symbols. I listened to The Dead and signed petitions and marched in rallies, and I affixed a green button with the words "Legalize It" overlaying a marijuana leaf to my book bag. I was more than liberal. I was radical.
However, my newfound fervor was not to last. Somewhere in the years that followed, I traded in my book bag and shredded jeans for a faux Coach purse and some chinos from Lands' End. I became slightly less outspoken, a little more conventional and by the mid-nineties, when Ben and Jerry's announced it was retiring White Russian to its flavor graveyard, what would have been devastating news a decade earlier was merely a mild disappointment. I was the mother of three young kids then, and instead of drinking Purple Jesus and listening to Zepplin, I spent my days making Play-Doh figures and baking peanut butter cookies in an Easy Bake Oven.
Besides, I could now buy Ben and Jerry's at my local grocery store, and soon, gelato would make it's American debut (thank you, Italy!), and those self-serve yogurt places would become all the rage, and though Ben and Jerry's was still my first choice, I sometimes settled for a lesser ice cream that was on sale. We had become an old married threesome, Ben, Jerry and I. What I had once been in love with now I simply loved -- which was hardly the same thing at all.
And then just last year, Ben and Jerry's announced that White Russian was making a comeback. At first, I was excited beyond all reason, but then I realized it was only returning (being "reinconeated") to scoop shops and that the closest Ben and Jerry's to my home in western North Carolina was now in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Had this been the '80s, I would have been all about a 100-plus mile road trip. Now, it just seemed, well, impractical to drive all the way to Tennessee for ice cream.
Moreover, while I was researching where to get White Russian, I stumbled upon this shocking fact: Apparently, Ben and Jerry sold out. Maybe everyone else knew this already, but for all these years, I had been picturing Ben and Jerry up there in the Freedom and Unity State slicing cherries, whipping up brownies and fish-shaped chocolates, testing out all the new flavor suggestions I emailed them. But it turns out that in 2000, Ben and Jerry's became a subsidiary of the food giant Unilever.
So though Ben and Jerry are still involved in a slew of philanthropic endeavors, I guess you could sort of say they have retired -- which changes my whole life, really. If Ben and Jerry are old, then that must mean I am old too, which means it may be time for me to acknowledge that tie-dye is not my best color scheme.
In fact, though I'm pretty sure ice cream is beneficial in fending off osteoporosis, it may no longer be appropriate for me to eat a carton of ice cream in one sitting. Maybe it's time for me to show some restraint, to be more concerned about my fat and cholesterol intake. Perhaps I should give up dairy altogether, become a vegan or go on a raw food diet. Perhaps I should, once and for all, eliminate a half bottle of Merlot and a pint of Ben and Jerry's Coffee Toffee Crunch as a viable dinner option.
Then again, I don't suppose there is any need to be extreme about it.