by Jan Baughman
(Swans - September 22, 2008) Once upon a time, in the good old days of America, every community looked forward to the annual summer fair. They held rodeos and sheepdog trials; the kids entered their carefully raised and lovingly groomed animals in 4-H Club events; everyone shared the wealth of their harvests; and the most anticipated and competitive happening for kids and adults alike was the ice cream competition. Anyone could participate, and each would-be ice cream culinarian was given a booth to showcase his or her talents. Neighbors, friends, and family campaigned fervently for their favorite flavor. The competitors spoke passionately about nutty vanilla, sublime chocolate, unprecedented strawberry made from the sweetest, ripest berries planted and nurtured just for the occasion. The town papers covered the competition as if lives were at stake in the outcome, and sometimes they were. You can't imagine the fairground fistfights that would break out if someone insulted your mother's ice cream!
Early on the entries were rather simple, with variations on the usual winners, chocolate, and vanilla. Neapolitan appeared in its wonderful multicolored combination. Banana splits, sundaes, and waffle cones began to appear as regular contestants. As ice-cream-making technology progressed, new ingredients were incorporated and butter pecan, chocolate chip, and rocky road made their debut. And as the rivalries became more intense, the innovators sought creative ways to give them an edge over the mainstream choices. Some reverted to all organic ingredients; others focused on the "locally produced" appeal, made their ice cream by hand and not machines, or packaged it in recycled material.
The top two flavors became increasingly threatened by the pressures of the innovators and turned to mass-produced ingredients to keep their costs down. They spent little effort on the ice cream itself, but offered it to the fairgoers in elegant dishes served from the large, festive booths that detracted from the poor quality of their dessert. Over time, the chocolate and vanilla camps tired of the competition's impact on their bottom line and decided to take over the contests. They sought support from the chocolate corporations and the vanilla bean growers, who quickly became a fixture at the fair, lobbying shamelessly to promote their respective products. Eventually they simply bought up all the fairgrounds, forced the fringe flavors out of the competition by charging outrageous fees for access to the booths, and ensured that the newspapers made no mention of any flavors except for chocolate and vanilla.
It didn't take long for chocolate and vanilla to simply melt together into a bland, beige mixture whose taste resembles neither vanilla nor chocolate. But as the only entry in the competition, the king of all ice cream now garners upwards of 97% support, forced down the throats of voters at fairs all across the country.
While the majority of fair-goers mindlessly lap up the cheap, frozen, uninspired glop in the heat of summer while reminiscing about the good ol' flavors of yesteryear, I scream for diversity. But of course, I'm no longer allowed entrance to the fair to make my displeasure known. I fear that those tastes I crave will soon be a distant memory recorded in the cookbooks of history if we don't do what needs to be done to keep them around for all to savor for generations to come.