My plain, old vanilla ice-cream life

By Jim Mullen

I don’t remember much about my childhood – only that my seven brothers and sisters and I were cruelly forced to do yard work from about 11 a.m. to noon every Saturday before we could wander off and do whatever we pleased without adult supervision for the rest of the weekend; that we were dragooned into drying dinner plates several nights a week in exchange for room and board; that we were required to wear cheap, unfashionable uniforms to expensive private schools; that we required to hang up our own clothes in our own closets under pain of shunning; that we were constantly threatened with the loss of life-sustaining evening meals if we didn’t make our beds or do our homework in a timely way. Oh, the humanity! How did I ever suffer through it for 26 long years? In short, it made Oliver Twist’s childhood seem light and fluffy.

Still, even under the harsh discipline, there were a few good times. Usually, once a summer my father would make ice cream. We never knew what got into him. As far as we children knew, he didn’t even like sweets. He was always eating things no one else, especially kids, would eat. Kipper snacks. Smelly cheese. Scrapple. I guess he figured no one would steal it.

I don’t know how Ben and Jerry make their ice cream but they probably use a similar system my Dad’s. First, Ben will root around in their basement for several hours trying to find all the pieces to the ice cream maker. Then Jerry will look in the attic. Finally, one of them will remember they lent the whole contraption to the people across the street last Memorial Day.

As I recall, it consisted of a metal bucket (probably made of lead lined with asbestos or some other child-friendly material of the period) that sat inside a bigger wooden bucket. The gap between the two buckets was then filled with ice. Then there was some kind of ice cream making voodoo that involved rock salt, a handle that did something and a few other things. I was never to clear on the physics of it. I just knew it was fascinating for us to watch my father stir it – for about three minutes. Then we would all suddenly remember we had more pressing engagements like hunting frogs or capturing the Germans, who were attacking us with mud pies, or finding more wood for the tree house while Dad churned vanilla ice cream for two or three hours.

These were the pre-historic days before mix-ins. It never would have occurred to us to put cookie crumbs or candy bits or gummy bears or marshmallows or chewing gum in our ice cream. Now it seems there’s no ice cream that can’t be improved by mixing other things into it. What’s next? Chewing tobacco? Bacon bits? Deep-fried mozzarella sticks? Baby greens? Wasabi mustard? Buffalo wings?

Dad was making plain, old vanilla ice cream. Sure, he could have gone to the store and bought a half gallon of ice cream for us, and he often did; sure, he could have loaded us all in the station wagon and taken us to an ice cream stand, and he often did, but that day he made ice cream.

Sue made ice cream last week in a modern contraption that can turn a liquid sugary cream sauce into a solid in about six minutes. While we were waiting, I suddenly flashed to that day some 50 years past when my Dad made ice cream. The twisted white oak in the back yard, the little grassless paths we kids had worn across the lawn, the back porch, my brothers and sisters as they looked as children. I don’t remember eating the ice cream at all.

Yesterday, on TV I heard someone insult something by calling it “vanilla.” He meant it was boring. I felt sorry for him. Maybe, like me, he’d forgotten that plain, old vanilla ice cream is pretty good stuff, all by itself.

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at

Copyright 2006, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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