Tasting Childhood

by Carolin Messier

New England maple nut ice cream on Cape Cod

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, my only experience eating maple walnut ice cream was in the evenings after dinner in front of the television. It was my Yankee mother’s favorite. Scooped from a non-descript, half-gallon carton, it was mostly a textural accompaniment to our evening’s entertainment. Sometimes we drizzled a bit of syrup over it, but layering artificial maple flavor on top of artificial maple flavor didn’t make it taste any more natural. As a kid I didn’t know any better, having never tasted the real thing. When my parents offered me this after dinner treat I enjoyed every bite in between the canned laughter of ’70s sitcoms. It never occurred to me that there existed a version which would command my full attention. I was completely unprepared for what was scooped into the old fashioned soda fountain dish for me at Hallet’s on Cape Cod.

The first bite held the lifeblood of a species and a region: sweet nectar discovered centuries ago by native hunters and gatherers. Heightened by the five generations of Hallet hospitality radiating from the worn plank floor and counters, the cream from the mainland dairy draped across my tongue and caressed my throat. The Richardson’s have been farming their land near Salem Village for over 300 years; I could feel their care in the texture of the churn.

In each spoonful I could taste the snow’s anticipation of spring, the sweet perspiration of honest work in open air and fireside tales spun like amber threads. I wanted to return to a home I never knew: a farm in Québec or Maine full of mischievous but industrious uncles, and aunts who had learned how to make a home. I wanted to crack walnuts while settled into the lap of a grandfather who could report the snowfall of every winter in memory and how the sugaring season had been in each. And I wanted to stir the pot beside a grandmother who bottled her own sarsaparilla and canned green tomato pickles from a recipe scribbled out in bushels and pecks.

As my mouth was filled with the memory of a childhood I never had, I finally understood that my mother had longed for her own childhood in New England each time she scooped from the carton into our generous bowls. I learned more about her from the expression on her face as she tasted the real thing for the first time in decades on that late September Sunday on the Cape, than I had in any conversation we’d ever shared.