THE EMPEROR OF ICE CREAM
It was the summer of ‘73 and everything sort of sucked. Watergate. Vietnam. “Delta Dawn” and “Rocky Mountain High.” The best beer was Michelob, the best coffee – Maxwell House. And then there was ice cream.
Once a rare treat, modern ice cream had become a “frozen dairy delite,” as bland as Miracle Whip. Vanilla was America’s favorite flavor, with chocolate a close second. Just as “white bread” were the toppings, syrupy slop mass-produced and ladled on some homogenized flavor.
Then in August of that sucky summer, a small ice cream store opened in the Boston suburb of Somerville. Steve’s Ice Cream offered five flavors — 35 cents a scoop — but with a bonus. For an extra dime, the cheery guy behind the glass would throw a slab of ice cream right on the counter. As you watched, he’d toss in nuts, Oreos, even chunks of Heath bar, then smoosh the “mix-in” right into the gooey mess. As Steve Herrell remembers it, “people went bonkers over that.”
The idea had come to him in the latter-day hippie home he shared in Somerville. One night, while folding fruit into whipped cream for a party, Steve said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to put cookies and candy into ice cream? You could customize your own flavor.”
For opening day, Steve made 32 gallons. By evening, his freezer was empty. Steve’s Ice Cream closed for two weeks, but when it re-opened, with a well-stocked freezer and actual employees, the small store changed American ice cream. “Modern gourmet ice cream,” MSNBC observed, “is widely considered to have been born at the original Steve’s.”
Lines soon stretched around the block. Thirty-year-old Steve Herrell, former cab driver and English teacher, found his store written up in the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, even the New Yorker. Corporations pumping out airy half gallons for supermarkets may not have noticed, but two young entrepreneurs did.
Sometime in 1975, Steve spotted two guys sitting by the window. They sat so long that he came out and talked. They told him they hoped to open an ice cream store in Vermont. They wondered how Steve had done it. Their names were Ben and Jerry.
Steve Herrell is an affable guy, eager for fun. “If it’s not fun, he won’t do it,” said Judy Herrell, Steve’s ex-wife. Steve encouraged Ben and Jerry, whose first store featured mix-ins, chunky flavors, even a player piano like the original Steve’s. But Steve had not shared his secret.
Back in Washington, DC, every July 4, the Herrell family made ice cream on the front porch. Steve remembered “the funness and everybody taking a turn at the crank.” But he also remembered the taste. Thick. Creamy. Why didn’t store-bought ice cream taste that good?
The answer, Steve realized, was the motor-driven machine. So as an inveterate tinkerer — he made a bubble machine for opening day — he changed the gears, slowing his ice cream maker to hand crank speed. That added less air, making what one foodie called “ultra-creamy ice cream that is sticky, stretchy and chewy, almost like taffy.”
Steve, however, was a free spirit. Tired of long workdays and city life, he sold his business in 1977 and moved to Western Massachusetts. He hoped to raise goats but wound up tuning pianos. Meanwhile, new owners franchised “Steve’s Ice Cream” nationwide. Then came Häagen-Dazs and even chunkier ice cream made by those two guys in Vermont. Steve’s Ice Cream soon went belly-up and is now sold only in supermarkets. But if you’re ever in the artsy town of Northampton, MA, drop by Herrell’s.
Opened in 1980, Herrell’s is the original Steve’s on steroids. The menu includes 32 “smoosh-ins,” so named because Steve sold the trademark to “mix-ins.” And while the Somerville Steve’s started with five flavors, Herrell’s has 60 — 14 fixtures plus a rotating selection from 400 others Steve and Judy whipped up out of pure flavor lust. Malted Vanilla (my favorite). Burnt Sugar & Butter. Baklava. Lemongrass Coconut. . .
For 30 years, Herrell’s customers saw Steve in the store, a hefty Santa Claus with white beard. The store was plastered with write-ups — from Newsweek, Bon Appetit, Gourmet. But Steve retired in 2014, leaving the business to his ex-wife.
Now 74, Steve still loves ice cream. “He’s still a vanilla guy,” Judy Herrell said. “With hot fudge.” And he has just finished a memoir. The book has no title yet, but may I suggest one?
Like Steve, poet Wallace Stevens knew that ice cream is not just “frozen dairy delite.” Ice cream is a metaphor for life itself. Cold but burning, sweet but short-lived, ice cream is a precious treat you’d better appreciate while it’s on your plate. So here’s your title, Steve:
Let the lamp affix its beam
The only emperor is. . .”The Emperor of Ice Cream.”