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Ice Cream as Architecture 

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001


I‘ve eaten a fair amount of ice cream in the past few weeks -- it’s ice cream season, after all -- and it has become obvious that ice cream cones are subject to variations not only in flavor, but also in structure, shape and style. A well-formed ice cream cone is a work of art.

At the old-fashioned soda fountain in Pasadena called Soda Jerks, I ordered a double dip (toasted almond and coconut pineapple) in a sugar cone. The ice cream served there is Fosselman‘s, an excellent local brand that’s been made in Alhambra by the Fosselman family for the last 80 years.

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Soda Jerks is a kid-friendly place with cheerful college-age kids behind the counter. You can order lunch (great hot dogs!) before your ice cream, or you can cut to the chase. On this occasion, a friendly young woman dug out two absolutely enormous, shaggy scoops, then placed them one atop the other in such a lopsided, precarious arrangement on the small cone that she felt compelled to drive a skinny red straw down through the center as a form of rebar. I appreciated her efforts to give me as much ice cream as possible, but to tell the truth, I didn‘t want that much (or I would’ve ordered a quadruple dip). Each scoop had wide, uneven ruffles that, even as she handed the cone to me, were already beginning to slough off. The first few minutes I held this top-heavy creation were spent in a frantic attempt to lick the unwieldy scoops into some kind of manageable shape before I could even walk back to my table -- a challenge, but I met it.

A few days later, my next ice cream cone was another double dip from Soda Jerks. Rocky road and espresso with cream. This time, a friendly young man was behind the counter, and I asked him to please go easy and give me small scoops. He cheerfully complied and handed me a trim cone, only modestly ruffled. There was still an initial period of taming the ice cream, licking it with a degree of pressure to get everything balanced and shaped, and to arrest the pending drips before they dropped.

Once an ice cream cone is shaped and balanced, eating it can become a leisurely, sensuous, meditative act. For a stretch of time, there‘s just you and the cone, the cumulative coldness and sweetness; the way the surface of the ice cream can look rasped or liquid; the smoothness and richness of the frozen custard; the random nut or candy shard, chip or crumb, the chunk of frozen fruit. Then, by the time you’re in a deep, tongue-numbed reverie, there‘s the wake-up of the cone, with its new crunch and added cookie taste. I love cones, cake or sugar, but coming to one always makes me sad; it means the end is in sight.

A few days ago, I paid a visit to the Fosselman’s ice cream shop on Main Street in Alhambra. I was waited on by Mr. Fosselman himself -- the elder Mr. Fosselman, that is (his son also works at the shop). I asked for a double dip, dark chocolate and English toffee. Slowly and deliberately, he picked up his scoop and reached down into the 3-gallon drums. He took his time, and my attention wandered to the lists of ice cream flavors and fountain items posted on the walls. Fosselman‘s reflects the season and changing neighborhood tastes; flavors include fresh peach, date, green tea, litchi, fresh mango.

I wish now that I’d watched Mr. Fosselman more closely as he filled my order, because he eventually handed me the perfect ice cream cone: the scoops equal in size and splendidly round, like two tiers of a snowman. There was a waist. And no unwieldy ruffles.

It became obvious within the first few licks that this was a solidly constructed, well-crafted piece of work; despite the visual fact that one sphere of ice cream sat balanced atop the other, the two were firmly joined, no danger of any toppling. The scoops themselves had an impressive solidity and weight evocative of baseballs. The whole assemblage was a structural feat and a pleasure to eat -- no mad licking it into submission, just leisurely, cooling, deepening pleasure from the get-go. This was an ice cream cone you could lose yourself in, and I did. Seated on the bench facing Main Street, I took a rapturous, 15-minute excursion into salty-sweet English toffee and the profundities of dark chocolate, right in the middle of a smoggy Southland summer afternoon.

Fosselman‘s Ice Cream Co., 1824 W. Main St., Alhambra; (626) 282-6533.

Soda Jerks, 219 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 583-8031.

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