Posted on September 30th, 2013
I’ll never see it again. I’m not sure it was there in the first place. It may have been a dream, or a summer night’s hallucination. On a lonely stretch of unmarked road somewhere outside of Montague, MA, walled in by dark trees and the whisking of bats overhead, I found, or thought I found, the world’s perfect soft serve.
If you’ve spent much time with your head inside a broken-down soft serve ice cream machine, you’ll understand that it is not a commodity often associated with perfection. Soft serve begins its life as an unwieldy sack of upsettingly viscous milk product weighing perhaps forty or fifty pounds. It sloshes like the innards of a giant squid as you drag it from the back of the walk-in fridge, praying to the patron saint of plastics that it won’t snag on a sharp corner and spill its guts out onto the concrete floor that it is probably your job to mop later. You open the top of the machine, a wide trap door that resembles the lid of an municipal garbage bin. Finally, in one clumsy motion, you hoist the sack high over your shoulder, rip out the plastic stopper, and try to keep your balance as the thick white slop pours into the dark innards whose workings you don’t fully understand.
Fittingly, this dubious treat was the chance afterbirth of a mechanical catastrophe. Ages ago, the lone ice cream truck of the great Mr. Carvel (of supermarket freezer section fame) broke down on a scalding day in summer. Desperate to save his wares, he began dishing out half-melted glop to those who would have it. And, inexplicably, the people loved it, lapping it up like thirsty dogs.
Therein lies the unlikely charm of soft serve. It is really the only ice cream you can properly lick. It requires no go-between. In a dish, the spoon is mere convention, a nod to propriety; in a cone, it yields to the tongue in effortless swaths. The teeth play no role. The gums never freeze in panic. The spoon invites seductive inversion. It’s blissful, really, as long as you don’t know too much about where it comes from.
It’s easy to learn too much if you get too close. Those machines don’t keep themselves running. Levers snap off. Thermostats break. Mysterious moving parts must be slathered periodically in a lard-like substance from a giant can labeled “edible lubricant.” And the upper chambers need to be cleaned from time to time: drained, unplugged, and wiped down with a damp rag the color of old snow. The only way to reach the deepest corners is to surrender an arm, a shoulder, and possibly part of a head to the demon within and hope that the sugar coma keeps it docile.
For one reason or another, the cultural clout of soft serve seems to have reached an all-time low in recent years. Maybe one customer too many has passed through the gauntlet of a summer job at the levers of The Machine. Or maybe we can blame the irresistible faddishness of frozen yogurt. After all, the last decade has seen the unassuming T.C.B.Y. give way to the likes of WonderPink-CreamBerry-SwirlO, YoLick-FreezeBerry-PinkLine, and YögoPinko-BerryZen-MixZing. Soft serve can never hope to achieve the cosmopolitan allure of frozen yogurt, even if the only detail that separates one from the other is the inclusion of a fistful of bacteria. Frozen yogurt says: I know actual yoga poses. I ask whether the strawberries are organic. I know the Himalayas are especially spiritual this time of year. Soft serve says: I don’t mind that this cone has no flavor. Yes, I want the rainbow sprinkles. No, I don’t care—I don’t care—I don’t care that this is half-frozen ooze from the unclean spout of a temperamental machine. I like it that way. I like peanut butter “sauce” and marshmallow “topping.” I even like that horrifying dip that trusts crusty when it cools and intends to resemble chocolate. Yogurt is food. This—this is ice cream.
I lost my faith once. I spent too many hours with my head down the crusty hopper. But on that long ago summer night, on that empty road outside of Montague, MA, I found something worth believing in. I don’t know what lured me in. Maybe I was tired of watching the twilight go by the windshield and I wanted a rest. Maybe I had nowhere to be, and there looked as good as anywhere. Or maybe the peculiarly sticky glow of the yellow floodlights sent some secret signal to some primal part of me: Confections Here, Not to be Missed.
The ice cream man spoke in a strange accent. I was the only customer. There was vanilla, there was chocolate, there was swirl. No mochi chunks or sliced mango. I ordered a medium dish of vanilla slathered in peanut butter sauce, and when I saw the way it curled into a perfect peak, felt the way it yielded to the spoon with just a touch of resistance, and tasted it—as though a zealous cow had offered itself in sacrifice to some dark Antarctic sugar god—I forgot all about the crusty hoppers, the bin lids, the edible lubricant, and every exotic yogurt flavor ever concocted by the self-enlightened millennial bourgeoisie. Here was something real, even if it did come from a sack. Here was a thing worth forgetting for.
Then I promptly forgot how to find the place.