Among the major food groups in my diet is ice cream. I have come by this naturally, having been raised in a family that considered a trip for ice cream the “go-to” activity for those occasional Sunday afternoons when my father was willing to indulge. In his seven-day-a-week work schedule, Sunday afternoon was his leisure time.
The childhood ice cream routine, circa 1963, doubtless shaped my later ability to negotiate as a lawyer, parent and husband. My mother was co-conspirator in prevailing upon my father, and she taught me to over-ask initially, while being prepared to accept an inevitable counter-offer. For instance, if she suggested we go to the Guernsey Cow, a massive ice cream and confectionary emporium an hour away, my father would typically offer to drive to Miller’s, a less-august shop thirty minutes away. If she suggested Miller’s, we would be prepared to accept a visit to Leof’s, a drug-store with an ice cream counter just three minutes away by car, or a ten-minute walk.
If my father were resistant even to Leof’s, my mother and I would resort to the freezer where there was a likely a half-gallon of Breyer’s ice cream. In those days a half-gallon was really a half-gallon, before manufacturers figured out they could make sleek packaging that SEEMS to be a half-gallon but is tapered to actually contain significantly less.
There was also a Baskin-Robbins shop near our home, but it never entered the negotiations. B-R was our ice cream target of opportunity, when passing by. Such a treat could occur on any day of the week and did not usually involve my father. The essential flavor at Baskin-Robbins, though thirty-one were touted, was mint chocolate chip. Some of the other flavors were doubtless delicious but, as far as my mother and I were concerned, there was only one flavor.
When my father occasionally surprised us by agreeing to go to the Guernsey Cow, it was actually a Pyrrhic victory for me. Truthfully, I did not particularly like their ice cream. There was no compelling flavor and, in order to make the long ride worthwhile, we usually ordered banana splits. Now, I realize there are people who love banana splits, just as there are people who love jelly in cookies or chocolate, but I have never enjoyed fruit with my ice cream or jelly with my cookies or chocolate.
The other specialty at the Guernsey Cow was homemade butterscotch taffy. Though I have a weakness for most sweets, I was not a fan. I feared that taffy, like Sugar Daddies, Tootsie-Rolls, and their ilk, would pull out my fillings. I do not recall this calamity actually occurring, but my fear of dentists was enough to sour me on taffy. Alas, my fear was apparently not compelling enough to make me brush my teeth thoroughly and consistently enough to avoid having fillings in the first place.
Later in life, my own family lived in Ramsey, NJ, a community where Baskin-Robbins franchises grew like trees. Stopping for ice cream was a staple of the post-soccer practice routine for all three of my children, but particularly for my daughter, Sarah. The health benefits of the soccer may have been outweighed by the diet shortfalls of the ice cream, but the psychological benefits to both of us made the trade-off worthwhile; anyone familiar with adolescents knows that a cheerful and cooperative 11-14-year-old daughter is priceless.
Scientific tests have not been undertaken, to my knowledge, but I believe preferences in ice cream flavor are inherited. From birth, Sarah never deviated from mint chocolate chip as her flavor. And it had to be from Baskin-Robbins. Imitations by other manufacturers, often labeled “chocolate mint chip” were specifically NOT acceptable. Along with subtle taste distinctions in the mint ice cream, the key to B-R MCC (as it was sometimes called in our efficiency-minded household) was, and continues to be, its tiny, melt-in-the-mouth dark chocolate flakes. Other brands, with their white ice cream and/or large chunks of chocolate, or imitation chocolate, were simply unacceptable.
I take pride in my daughter’s perhaps-excessive devotion to B-R mint chocolate chip. While I may have fallen for the occasional pralines and cream, vanilla or chocolate, Sarah’s devotion is PURE. When she went to college, I mailed her coupons for Baskin-Robbins. Among the advantages of the off-campus apartment where she lived in Wilmington, NC, was its proximity to a Baskin-Robbins.
So it was not entirely a surprise, last week, when Sarah, who moved last spring to nearby Raleigh, had a specific request for her birthday which falls on Halloween.
“I want a Baskin-Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream cake,” she said on the phone, a few days ahead of the event.
My initial response was flat-footed: “There isn’t a Baskin-Robbins in Chapel Hill. Would Ben & Jerry’s or Cold Stone Creamery be acceptable?”
The silence on the other end of the line was deafening. It occurred to me I should appreciate how amazing it was for me and my wife, Katie, to have the exclusive opportunity to share her twenty-fourth birthday. As a Halloween baby, Sarah’s youthful celebrations were always dominated by the hubbub of trick-or-treating and parties. Now that she is a young adult, and given her tendency to be involved with a boyfriend, her unattached status this year may prove to be a one-time event.
“I’ll find a Baskin-Robbins,” I recovered to say.
“Good,” she said, fully aware of her advantage over her defenseless father.
After I hung up, Katie said, “We drive past Ben & Jerry’s every other day, but I don’t know of any Baskin-Robbins around here.”
“There has to be one,” I said, confidently, though I was aware that the concentration in North Carolina does not nearly match that of New Jersey.
I Googled Baskin-Robbins locations and, sure enough, there was a shop in Durham, only thirty-five minutes away.
“That was easy,” I declared, recalling the busy shops in Ramsey with their freezers full of ice cream cakes from floor-to-ceiling. “I’ll go pick up a mint chocolate chip cake.”
“You’d better call first,” said Katie, wiser than I in the ways of local businesses. After all, she’s dealt with the “authorized appliance repairmen” who consult the manual, and the plumbers who put spigots in backwards.
“You don’t think they’ll have a mint chocolate chip cake available?” I asked.
Sure enough, they did not.
“We can order one,” said the girl on the phone. “It’ll take a week, though.”
“Her birthday is in two days,” I said.
“Sorry,” said the Durham Baskin-Robbins.
I located one other shop in the semi-vicinity, in Apex, a fifty-minute drive, and called.
“Do you have a mint chocolate chip cake available, for Halloween?” I asked, with trepidation.
“We don’t,” said the girl on the telephone, “but let me see if we can get one.”
I waited in suspense. A different voice came on the line.
“Hi, I’m the manager. We can custom-make a cake for you,” she said. “You can pick it up on Halloween after one o’clock.”
“Thank you,” I said, with relief. “Do you want the details?”
“No, we’ll have the designer call you for those,” said the manager.
“Designer?” I said.
“Yes sir,” she said, with pride. “We have an off-site specialist come in to make our cakes.”
“Wow,” I said.
After I hung up, I related the discussion to Katie. I concluded, with amazement: “It’ll be a small cake. There’re only three of us. What kind of training is involved to become an ice cream cake specialist?”
The next day the phone rang.
“Hi,” said a pleasant voice with a soft, southern accent. “I’m Carly, the cake designer for the Apex store. Tell me what you have in mind.”
I explained the relatively small size of the cake, Sarah’s devotion to mint chocolate chip, and her preference for chocolate crust over graham.
“Okay Mr. Sanders,” said Carly. “Tell me more about your daughter. What does she love? What are her passions?”
“You mean besides mint chocolate chip ice cream?” I asked.
“Yes, I want to know about her as a person,” said Carly.
I took a moment to contemplate how this discussion could be taking place with a stranger in regard to an ice cream cake. I wondered for a moment if I were the butt of a practical joke. I wondered what this cake was going to cost. But I couldn’t cheap out on this; I’d already come too far.
“Um, Sarah loves her dog,” I said. “That’s probably her main passion right now.”
“What kind of dog?” asked Carly.
“A cocker spaniel,” I said. “Her name is Stella, and she’s brown, with caramel-colored eyebrows,” I added, trying to anticipate her next questions.
“Great,” said Carly. “I’ll start working on it.”
“By the way, not that it matters,” I started to say, also anticipating Katie’s next question. “How much….”
Carly had already hung up.
After lunch, on Halloween, we drove to Apex. When we arrived at the store, in the corner of a small shopping center, we noted that the property looked new. The shop was bustling with three young women behind the counter.
“I’m here to pick up an ice cream cake for Sanders,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” said the manager, a tiny Chinese woman, smiling. “Carly made a very special cake for you.”
She reached up to the top shelf of the freezer behind the counter and brought down a box, twice as high as it was wide, perhaps eight inches across.
“Look,” she said, pointing through the cellophane top.
I peered into the package and beheld a work of art, a square cake topped with brown icing and orange trim, including a doghouse and a dog that looked remarkably like Stella, floppy icing ears and all, holding a banner from her mouth that read “Happy Birthday, Sarah.” I was truly impressed.
“It’s perfect,” I said, brandishing my credit card.
“Carly will be so pleased,” said the manager. “She takes great pride in her work.”
“That’s clear,” I said.
The manager accepted my card. “Fifteen dollars,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. “This was a custom-made cake,” I said. “How can it only be fifteen dollars?”
“That’s what it is,” said the manager.
I felt a strange sensation, that of enjoying a job extraordinarily well-done, for significantly less than expected. I felt embarrassed to be paying such a small sum with a credit card. I grabbed two additional pre-packed quarts of mint chocolate chip from the freezer to bump up the total.
“Can I leave a tip for Carly?” I asked.
“No,” said the manager, “but you can fill out the on-line survey and say something nice about her.”
“Absolutely,” I said. We completed a tribute to Carly as soon as we returned to the car.
If he were alive, my father would probably not find much that is familiar in modern-day North Carolina. However, he would certainly relate to the 1963-like price of an ice cream cake from the Apex Baskin-Robbins. In fact, there is a small, delicious piece of cake in the freezer that Sarah accidentally left behind. I think it has my name on it.