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Dripping with melancholy and a delectable craving, ice cream is the treat that’s more than mindlessly sweet

By Annemarie Cutruzzola

I find it oddly fascinating that ice cream is inherently a sad food and a happy food at the same time.

In the three summers that I worked at an ice cream shop, I saw it all. Of course, there were plenty of happy families, overjoyed children and way too many cute couples. I’ll never forget the one couple who took their engagement photos right in our shop. What you didn’t see in the Instagram post is how they moved all the tables around to get the perfect backdrop, and how the lavender ice cream they were holding looked a lot better than it tasted.

But there were also the strict parents who didn't let their kids get any of the fun toppings. There were the couples who physically fought to stop the other from paying, once to the point of ripping a bill; sweet on the surface but stubborn underneath. There was the family who came in after a funeral, their black clothes and sombre faces a stark contrast to the pink and white walls advertising flavours like “birthday bonanza.”

Ice cream is the go-to prop in any rom-com with a breakup. The heartbroken girl is always sobbing her eyes out over a bucket of the stuff, her friends probably on their way over with more. But it’s also the first place parents take their kids when they win a soccer tournament or get straight B’s on their report cards.

I’m the girl who was ecstatic that her first job was at the ice cream shop downtown, but who also found herself having her most therapeutic cries over a half litre in her kitchen at night. I realized that it wasn’t only the customers — I had my share of bittersweet moments fuelled by ice cream.

It was the night after one of my first shifts, and I had tennis elbow from trying to scoop a particularly troublesome batch of ice cream. I was also starving from not having eaten for eight hours. So there I was, sitting alone in my kitchen close to midnight, balancing ice packs on my aching arms while trying to spoon cereal into my mouth. You can imagine how ridiculous that looked, and I just burst out laugh-crying at my own pathetic misery — all because of that damn birthday cake ice cream that was too frozen to scoop but everyone ordered anyway.

While seemingly universally loved, if you look back on your own ice cream memories, maybe they weren’t as saccharine as you recall. Maybe it started with the freezer-burned taste of grocery store vanilla that you’ll always remember, the kind that comes in a two litre plastic tub your mom was always having to jam into the freezer.

Then there was the first boy you went on a date with. You were too slow to offer to pay when you got to the cash register. He’s kissing you, but you’re thinking you’d rather be tasting the $9 worth of cookies and cream that’s melting in the cup, forming a moat around the tiny spoon. You should’ve known it wouldn’t work out the moment he ordered mint chocolate chip.

There’s the last day of ninth grade with your friend, the heat of a new season sinking in with the rest of high school looming on the horizon. You got a special cone with sprinkles on it and a stamp card that promises your eighth order free. Amidst the laughter and gossip, you can’t help but wonder if she’ll still want to hang out with you in the fall.

You never got your free ice cream. You didn’t want to go alone.

My most bittersweet ice cream moment happened the day after everything changed. Predictable crisis: I was heartbroken after breaking my first heart. Unpredictable crisis: a global pandemic was just declared, and the world as I knew it was shutting down around me as I licked cheesecake ice cream off a spoon three storeys above the city.

Nothing had sunk in yet, but I knew my life was going to be very different, very suddenly. I clung to the familiar that day, leading my best friend to the pink and white walls that stuck out from the rest of the eerily empty food court. I ordered all the same toppings that I loved at work. I could tell I didn’t make it, but this ice cream was still familiar, quite possibly the only thing that wasn’t changing. We talked for hours, long after our cups were emptied. The details of our conversation have melted away, but I remember the enveloping feeling of comfort at a time when I needed it most.

Happy or sad, heartbroken or in love, ice cream is comfort and always will be for me.

The years ahead would have their ice cream moments too. There was the first pandemic summer when an outing to the McDonald’s drive-thru was the highlight of my week, one perfect little moment of bliss with my vanilla cone and my feet up on the dashboard. There was the celebratory post-vaccine ice cream. And of course, when everything got to be too much, crying over a half litre in my kitchen at night.

Now, when I pass by the ice cream shop I used to work at, there’s hardly any line, nevermind the one winding around the block that I used to tackle most weekends. Large plexiglass screens separate customers and employees, and the three perpetually sticky tables in the seating area are gone.

It’s unsettling to think how much has changed in the few years since I worked there. On one hand, I like making minimum wage at home in sweatpants more than making minimum wage in a pink hat and apron. But I miss the constant surprise — something that’s rare to find surrounded by the same four walls, amidst the monotony of Zoom meetings.

When that heavy glass door opened, I’d never know what to expect.

In our five-minute interactions, I witnessed fleeting, one-note tableaus of our customers. I saw their curiosity and excitement to try a new flavour, but they were already out the door by the time their faces scrunched up. I heard snide comments directed at customers ordering a large cone, but I didn’t see how those remarks could echo for weeks in the minds of those they were carelessly lobbed at. And even though I saw their picturesque engagement announcement, there’s no way to know the fate of the couple with the lavender ice cream.

Maybe I’m overanalyzing the complexities of this dessert, but I really think it’s the most two-faced treat. It’s a pleasure and a pity to eat, craved by insatiable sweet tooths and lonely hearts alike. It’s messy and sticky as much as it is sweet — just like me.

This piece was published in New Wave's Spring 2022 Issue


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