The Scoop on Area Ice-Cream parlors
In a day and age when there are probably a dozen dozen designer flavors of the stuff in every grocer's freezer, going out for ice cream seems kind of quaint. What's the point of loitering on the sidewalk as drips of vanilla run down the side of the cone when--if you're anything like me--you've got six different pints of complicated dairy product at home in the freezer (mocha java caramel choco-chip swirl, anyone?).
Here's why: Like all treasured, lovingly recalled food experiences, eating an ice cream cone is almost always about the event and its circumstances rather than the treat itself. As a kid, going out for ice cream was a big deal, one of the rare times my family did something together. It was just a Baskin-Robbins on Ritchie Highway, or later the Westminster Twin Kiss, but I remember those nights themselves far more clearly than the ice cream. What flavor was my favorite? Cone or cup? I have no idea. But I do remember trading licks with my brother and cousins in the backseat of my dad's Plymouth Satellite, and trying to see who could make their scoop last the longest.
To this day, the impression of warm summer-night air drifting through a car window, bearing with it the songs of crickets and cicadas, immediately conjures the straightforward, taken-for-granted bliss these trips to the ice-cream parlor always produced. That sensation is certainly not in Baskin-Robbins' product line. July brings the warm summer nights and cricket songs, but you're going to have to create your own nostalgic reveries--all I can do is point you toward some good local ice-cream palaces.
Honestly, though I hate to say it, most of the ice cream out there is not a great step above what you can get from the cold case at the supermarket. I love Need Ice Cream as much for the funky color scheme as for the ability to load up my scoop with jimmies, gummy bears, and M&Ms if I dang well want to. Down in Fells Point, Maggie Moo's Ice Cream and Treatery is another frequent stop. However, as much as I enjoy double-dipping into either of these shops, stopping in is more about location and convenience than ice-cream excellence. On the plus side, both use local product--Need Ice Cream serves Baltimore-made Lee's Homemade Ice Cream, and Maggie Moo's mixes its own brand of creamy treats at its Columbia HQ. But--sorry--neither one is going to pass for homemade, and more than likely neither is going to one-up supermarket pints of Ben & Jerry's flavorwise.
There are places, though, where the ice cream is much closer to handmade--small batches of very good high-butterfat, intensely flavored (if still machine-mixed) frozen dairy product. In town, the best by-the-scoop source is Sylvan Beach. Everyone claims to know about this great little shop, where ice-cream revenue provides education, housing, and employment for high-school dropouts. If that's so, then how come every time I go in there for the addictive coconut almond chip it's just me, the counterperson, and the occasional earnest writer hunched over a spiral notebook?
Not that this is revealing any great secret, but Moxley's is another source for very good ice cream in an interesting array of ever-changing flavors that reflect the season. Right now, Very Cherry Chunk features both red and black cherries, and warm weather brings steely sweet rum raisin to Moxley's big board as well.
The best place around for ice cream, however, is more of a pilgrimage than a pit stop. It's not summer until I can sit on the porch at Simmons Store and slowly work my way around a rotund scoop of fresh fruit ice cream. There are, ever and always, three flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and whatever is in season. Strawberry's almost done; soon it will be time for raspberry, August brings peach, my absolute favorite. The Simmons family makes their ice cream, a restrained, richly sweet recipe, in the basement and then hand-dips each scoop or pint (packed in a tub and wrapped in newspaper to curb the melting).
Maybe Simmons' ice cream always tastes so good because you have to drive so far to get there. For me, it's that a visit to Simmons usually follows a day at Cascade Lake, which is right down the road. You come relaxed and sun-shocked after a day in the water, welcoming the dim light and semi-intact interior of a former general store now cluttered with odds and ends--softball trophies, ceramic owls, and whatnot. There's a screen door that slaps shut behind you, and benches out front for sitting and gazing down the still-uncrowded country road. As the sun goes down, crickets start to chirp and the breeze moves warm, pasture-scented air across your face. Summer lives here.
Don't even get me started on the Good Humor Man: Dishthis@hotmail.com.