A few months ago, I was cursing my place in the world. I mean literally, the actual spot where we live here in “Rhode Iceland.” After my husband retired from the Navy, I thought I could handle the harsh, bitter, seemingly endless New England winters, but every time it snows in April (and it does every year) I curse the ground it falls upon.
But somehow, without fail, summer comes to this temperamental part of the planet, and it has the same effect that the birth of each of my three babies had on me after long hours of labor — I am so happy to see it, I completely forget about the excruciating pain I just endured.
As soon as the flowers begin to bloom, the lawn turns green, and mild coastal breezes waft over the bay — POOF! I have selective amnesia. I suddenly can’t recall the chunks of gritty snow hanging from my car’s wheel wells, the salt stains on my leather boots, the Nor’easters that cut me to the quick, the chapped lips, the flakey skin, and our shocking fuel oil bills.
I never know the exact date that the mercy of selective amnesia will thaw my frozen psyche, but it usually coincides with another much-anticipated yearly event — the opening of our local summer soft serve ice cream joint.
Those who are stationed in California, Hawaii, Arizona, Florida, or Texas might not understand this, but living in climates with harsh winters does come with certain benefits. And one of those is the privilege of experiencing summer soft serve joints. They are generally dumpy, privately-owned, small businesses run out of shacks with walk-up windows, neon signs and outdoor picnic tables. They only operate in summer, and local folks line up on opening day. Their soft serve cones are always huge, but the napkins are inevitably too small to catch the drips. They have names that often include cutesy misspelled derivations of “freeze,” “cone,” “treat,” “dairy,” and “cream.”
Where I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, there’s one such joint called “Stern’s” in the former coal mining borough of Creekside. On any given night in summer, locals line up for humongous swirled soft serve cones that look like they’ll topple over they’re so tall, and home-made hot apple dumplings smothered in vanilla frozen custard.
After marriage, the Navy took my family to tours of duty in warmer climates where our ice cream cravings could only be satisfied at year-round chain restaurants. And while stationed overseas, we took the mandatory culinary detour away from American cuisine to experience the delights of European gelato parlors.
But soon after being stationed in Rhode Island six years ago, our family learned about “Frosty Freez,” a tiny walk-up shack in a parking lot in front a strip joint off of East Main Street, between an insurance agency and Glam Nail Salon. That first summer, we heard the hubbub about opening day, and wondered, “What’s the big deal? Why is everyone lining up for basic soft-serve and rainbow sprinkles?” But it didn’t take us long to catch the aura of this iconic little gem. Now, we fight the line with everyone else, swatting bugs attracted to the neon lights, to get our rightful taste of the season.
My order is usually vanilla and coffee custard swirled on a cone, and dipped in chocolate, because I love the process of systematically nibbling off the chocolatey shell and licking the ice cream drips. Francis typically opts for a strawberry shake. The kids orders vary, but they mostly go for the candy-packed “Flurries.”
Local joints like Frosty Freez thrive despite stiff competition from year-round establishments because they represent something more than the cheap frozen custard they express out of stainless steel machines into flimsy cones and dip in waxy imitation chocolate. To the people who flock to them, they represent sunshine and swimming pools, green grass and garden hoses, flip-flops and fireflies, baseball games and bathing suits, sunburns and screened doors, fire pits and Frisbees, bug bites and beach chairs.
Simply put, soft serve ice cream joints are American symbols of summer joy.