The Italians have gelato; Americans, at least in the corner of New England where I grew up, have the summer ice-cream stand.
There’s nothing wrong with gelato. It can be found at almost any time and place in an Italian city; the portions are modest, the flavors traditional. But the staid, routine pleasures of gelato pale in comparison with the extravagant joys of the seasonal ice-cream stand, which are as fleeting as the long, hot days of a New Hampshire summer. Ice-cream stands are bound up with a holiday feeling of freedom, of release from the ordinary, of Americanness.
I’m not talking about Ben & Jerry’s, or anything else you can find packaged in the grocery store or efficiently dispensed indoors, even in winter, but the sort of ice-cream stand that opens its doors — or maybe just its windows — for a few short months. Here endless flavors are listed on an overhead board and displayed in buckets below; a teenager takes your order and then puts her muscle into wielding the scoop; and the “kiddie” portion fills a grown man while the “large” could incapacitate a horse. The excess is the point. You don’t necessarily want a giant-sized serving of cotton-candy cookie-dough ice cream, but you like to know that it’s on offer. It’s an inclusive sort of excess: There’s something for everyone, even low-fat frozen yogurt or sorbet, if that’s your thing.
You can find the ice-cream stand on the side of the road as you return from a hike in the mountains, or on a warm weekday evening in your hometown, or on the boardwalk by the beach. Usually you go in a group, as a family or with friends. Making a selection can be serious business, especially for a child. Mint chocolate chip or double-fudge moose tracks? Dish or cone? Sugar cone or waffle cone? A cone has the advantage of being edible and delicious, but it could end with a toppled-over scoop in the dirt or sticky rivulets of chocolate running down your arm. I’m risk- and mess-averse. I usually go with the dish, and multiple flavors to hedge my bets. But once in a while, a cone feels right.
An array of options, the freedom to choose, to feel passionately (or not) about your preferences, to envy the flavor your neighbor went with, to take risks, to overindulge, to live with the consequences — what could be more gloriously American?