Whether childhood summers were spent in Abu Dhabi or New York, just one ice cream cone can unleash memories of the distant past.
Summer's simple and delicious pleasures
The dog days of summer are draped ahead like a warm pall. With a seasonal appetite as languid and listless as the oven's draft, my mind rarely wanders to the topic of dinner, a favoured subject on which to linger in temperate times. For five days running, I have enjoyed the same dinner: a bowl of homemade ice cream eaten slowly while I sit on the patio watching the sun set. If there is a better antidote to revive the flagging spirit, I don't know what it could be.
In the 1980s, our summer holidays commenced the day we arrived in the US, followed by the immediate raiding of extended family's freezers. There would always be freezer-burnt Neapolitan ice cream in my aunt's freezer or an elemental spumoni not quite greater than the sum of its parts. Evenings were spent waiting in line for a cone at the nearby Sundae School, or deliberating over the Smoosh-Ins for our malted vanilla cones at Herrell's, where the concept of mix-ins originated. Sometimes we had ice cream cakes on our birthdays, but more often than not there was a Friendly's watermelon roll - watermelon sherbet with flecks of chocolate chip "seeds" and a "rind" of lemon and lime sorbet.
By midsummer, our Pavlovian impulses were attuned to the sound of the ice cream man's truck rolling melodically into the car park at Pilgrim Lake. Though decidedly less modern and polished than Dan Furlong's Desert Chill van, that truck was our dream vehicle, the vision of it approaching felt like the quintessence of summer and the driver, though not his own boss, was our hero and idol - at least for a few minutes every day.
We'd stand in line, studying the peeled, sun-bleached menu board and choose our treat judiciously. There were always sno-cones: three uniform and distinct stripes of blue, orange and red ice in a cone that were destined to leave one's lips a hypothermic shade of lavender. There were Marino's Italian ices in watermelon, cherry and lemon. And, there was the guaranteed bonus of an ice cream headache, otherwise known as a brainfreeze, which happens when the trigeminal nerve conducts signals from the palate to the brain, which interprets the source as the forehead.
What we really longed for was variety and a sense of anticipation; something that ice cream trucks, with their fleeting mobility and singsong chimes, manage to elicit well. That the suburban format of Dubai's Meadows is a throwback to a certain cultural and socioeconomic environment makes the introduction of an ice cream van as theatrical, innocuous and welcome as a lemonade stand or a neighbourhood potluck. It stirs feelings of nostalgia where they have no reason to exist.
After school in Abu Dhabi, we witnessed a less Rockwellian version of the ice cream van of bygone days; here, dark-eyed, unsmiling men whose lashes were frosted with road dust sold frozen desserts outside the gates of the kindergarten. We never bought anything from them, instead holding out for the highlight of my adolescence: a weekly visit to Baskin Robbins. Every Wednesday, I'd get a waffle cone with three scoops of Daiquiri Ice, which was a garish aqua-foam green sorbet with a tart and bracing soapiness. Created in 1962, it was to me the sleeper hit of a lifetime that may as well have been previously spent in ice cream purgatory. Despite its saucy name, Daiquiri Ice was alcohol-free, but once it had circulated that "daiquiri" refers to the name of a rum-based cocktail, my brooding dark horse was laid to rest. I felt simultaneously cheated and as though I had unearthed a sham. After all, nobody had bothered removing ersatz pork products like turkey "bacon" from shelves, and there's no more daiquiri in a Daiquiri Ice than there is bacon in turkey bacon.
I've had insatiable cravings, but for the most part, mine are relatively vanilla, as they say. One of my earliest memories is of being pushed around Central Park in a stroller alongside my cousin. I was holding a chocolate cone and she was holding a vanilla cone, and I remember thinking: "Why get vanilla when you can have chocolate?" Vanilla seemed so non-committal - tabula rasa, blank slate. But now, vanilla soft serve is my favourite food on earth. Save for a brief love affair with the ubiquitous matcha (green tea) soft serve of Japan and the unfortunate experience of being stuck in Mexico with nothing to eat but the drippy remnants of the chocolate soft-serve machine, I've never turned back on this simplest of pleasures. Well, I turned back once, but that was only to backtrack at 2am in order to find Ted Drewes Frozen Custard on Route 66 in Missouri, known as the only frozen dessert stand in the country to operate every hour of every day during the summer.
I also like my ice cream and gelato on the firm side, not melting or melted. No milkshakes for me, thanks. For this reason, discovering dondurma in Turkey was a euphoric experience. Indian kulfi and Japanese mochi ice cream are similarly practical for warmer climates; they hold their shape as they slowly melt. But dondurma was the frozen dessert I could really sink my teeth into. Made of salep (sahlab in Arabic) and mastic resin (which comes exclusively from the Isle of Chios in Greece), this chewy, taffy-like style of ice cream is eaten throughout Persia and the Levant.
In preparation for a particularly cruel summer, I'm looking to expand my repertoire. I'll be enjoying traditional Sicilian-style breakfasts of gelato or granita with brioche. When it's time to gild the lily, there is Malaysian ais kacang (shaved ice with boiled red bean, syrup, chocolate sauce and evaporated milk) and Filipino halo-halo (sweet preserved beans, coconut, jackfruit, sweet yam, cream flan, sweetened plantain, crushed ice, coconut milk and ice cream). And for everyday snacking, I make my own Popsicles, and eat them all day long.