As teenagers growing up in Los Angeles, my friends and I used to refer to the Third Street Farmers Market as the last untouched piece of Los Angeles. As soon as I entered the gates, I felt as though I had been transported to another time. When I was 16 and all of my peers were getting jobs at Starbucks, my best friend and I were hired as counter scoopers at Gill’s Ice Cream. A tall, white-haired man now in his 70s, Robert Gill is an institution at the Farmers Market. His father opened the shop in 1934, and he has worked there since he was a teenager. Mr. Gill, as he is known, still comes in to the shop six days a week in his uniform of pressed white pants, white tennis shoes, a white polo shirt and a white visor, which sits above his wire-rimmed glasses.
Most of Mr. Gill’s days are spent sitting on a tall, rusted metal stool in his back office staring out the window, watching his customers and waiting for his moment, which usually comes in the form of an elderly lady with a thinning puff of pink hair.
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)“Hello, Betsey!” he’ll boom, leaping up, then turning to announce to the scoopers, “Betsey’s one of our regulars!”
It was on days like those that I learned to prepare Gill’s specialty date shakes, sparkling cherry limeades and other bygone delights. Mr. Gill patiently guided me through the traditional processes: from the preparation of the date syrup that goes into his old-fashioned date shakes to intuiting the proper balance between lime and cherry juices in certain drinks.
Not all of the traditions are passed on to his employees; Mr. Gill’s special ice cream molds are something only he does. He spends hours packing ice cream by hand into stainless-steel molds of various shapes and burying them in a fog of dry ice. After they set overnight, he removes the solid, molded ice cream shapes (fruits for spring, bunnies for Easter, turkeys for Thanksgiving… ) and places them delicately on a large sheet of wax paper, where he begins to add detail — quickly.
Hunched over and squinting in the poorly lit back room, Mr. Gill begins to bring the ice cream to life. He lightly browns the ice cream bananas with chocolate ice cream details and then meticulously paints them with green, yellow and brown dye until they might easily be mistaken for the real bananas two stalls over. He lightly speckles the faux strawberries with painted seeds and glazes over his icy peaches with varying shades of orange and red. His creased hands gently fill a basket with pieces of ice cream pineapple, plum, peach, strawberry, banana and citrus fruit, all almost too beautiful to eat.
Mr. Gill’s ice cream stand is not just his place of business. It is his art studio and sanctuary from an ever-changing world.