As an author of a book about ice cream around the world, I am asked these questions frequently:
1. What is the best ice cream in [insert current metropolitan area]? (Another variation: What is the best ice cream in the world?)
2. What is the weirdest ice cream that you have ever tasted?
3. Why ice cream?
It’s the third question that stumps me.
Usually I give an impersonal, sentimental answer like I have always loved it since my parents always had a carton in the freezer or I always had a sweet tooth. Yet honestly, who doesn’t love ice cream?
Sometimes if I sense a calm, open curiosity in the questioner, I might answer:
“I don’t drink.”
It all started when I was 18, while attending my first college party. The birthday girl was turning 19 or 20. Someone brought glass bottles of cheap faux Russian vodka with names that read as Sheekah and Smeenoff even when sober or drunk. Anxiety twisted my throat, tightening it as a shot of vodka was thrust into my hand.
For many, this could be the initiation into the throes of alcoholism — a devastating disease. But for me, the shot represented the peer pressure and the painful desire to fit in throughout my childhood. They shoved me to tears in the first grade when nobody wanted to play with me, and the teacher left me to comfort a boy who skinned his knee. They also tore me apart when I was 11, and girls with bouncy permed hair and designer clothes mocked me repeatedly, “Where did you get your clothes?” They haunted me during lunch in middle school when trusted friends said, “We don’t want Jennifer to sit with us anymore.”
There in the cramped, dark apartment in Berkeley with eighteen underclassmen, I knew that I did not want to drink. Yet the party host glared and said, “You cannot leave if you do not drink it!”
“No,” I stuttered and became bold. “I refuse.”
Handing the drink to a willing guest, I meekly smiled. Everyone cheered and took the shot. I held up an empty hand, envious of the camaraderie that excluded me.
Bacchic quotes celebrate drinking while demeaning those that do not drink. From Frank Sinatra “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.” to Chelsea Handler, “There are two kinds of people I don’t trust: people who don’t drink and people who collect stickers.”
My name is Jennifer, and I don’t drink. I don’t collect stickers.
It was a decision that I made, and that choice bled into my personal principles until I forgot the very reason why I made it in the first place. It’s not because I am allergic. It’s not because I experienced family tragedies. It’s a complex reason with deeply seated principles that I don’t even wholly understand. But it comes to this: I don’t like when my decision interferes with getting to know someone.
I am constantly seeking a place for a casual get-together with a friend, a date, or an old colleague. By the time evening rolls around, nobody wants to drink coffee. Yet, the night is not over for me. It is the quintessential question “want to get a drink?”
Happy hours are commonplace for post-work colleague bonding. Bars are the choice of locale for the I-am-turning-25-let’s-celebrate and my-girlfriend-just-broke-up-with-me moments with friends. We say I need a drink before we can dance at 80s night, sing at the karaoke bar, or talk to the girl at a nearby table. Sundays are often filled with brunch menus spotlighting the “Hangover Special” and the tired eyes of “I drank too much last night”.
I want to be around people. I want to hang out with friends after work. I want to extend evenings that seem to keep going on and on. I want to do the 3 AM stumble home. I want friends to dance with me at weddings. I want to sing off-key, scream at baseball games, and eat $25/wheel triple cream cheese on artisanal bread in the park. I want to be vulnerable with others, and others to be vulnerable with me.
After many years of drinking water at bars, I want to go somewhere where a tasteless concoction is not the only alternative. Where it is not $10 for a drink mixed with nothing but cheap fruit juices. Where my boredom is not amplified when talk turns to howmanyshotscanwetake. A place where my sobriety is not questioned. A place with low barriers where the time commitment and cost are low. A place that recalls childhood nostalgia of simple pleasures.
The answer is ice cream.
My entire social circle has already learned: “Want to get ice cream?” is the question I crave to hear every day.
Jennifer Ng, a lifelong ice cream lover, chronicles visits to a dairy plant, the island where ice cream supposedly originated, and conversations with ice cream makers in Ice Cream Travel Guide. She meets former pastry chefs, Gelato University students, and fellow ice cream lovers. Jennifer seeks to answer the question: why is ice cream so special for so many of us?