Taking a Licking
It’s Sunday morning and I’m at the back of the line at Miyako Old Fashioned Ice Cream, behind a mom and her three kids in stiff church clothes, and two greasy-haired guys in stained T-shirts on a morning bender. People come to Miyako’s for one of two things: ice cream and discount cigarettes.
I’m here to realize my fantasy of spending a day bingeing full tilt on my drug of choice. Some people are addicted to alcohol, nicotine, or something harder. I fill the void with frozen butterfat.
A brief history of me and the cold stuff: As a toddler, I tore a friend’s freezer door off its hinges in a desperate attempt to nab a fourth ice cream sandwich, and I haven’t looked back. I have so far never overdosed, but on multiple occasions have eaten enough to require removing my pants. So on the big morning, I prepare for this experiment by skipping breakfast and wearing my lowest-slung jeans without a belt.
Ice cream, by definition, is at least a tenth (and as much as one-half) pure, unadulterated butterfat. San Francisco has more than five dozen ice cream purveyors, which comes out to 1.5 frozen butterfat dealers per square mile. I figure this makes our fair city the perfect place to gather empirical evidence on the age-old question of just how much is too much of a good thing?
The woman ahead of me in line rewards her family for sitting through Sunday service with scoops of buko (baby coconut), mango, rocky road, and a strawberry milkshake. It’s now the drunken guys’ turn. The blond one with matted hair mumbles to no one in particular, “We come in hammered sometimes, but we don’t mean any harm,” before ordering a pack of lights and two sundaes with sprinkles.
In many ways, ice cream parlors are like bars. Both employ long counters and stools in the decor, serve multiple varieties of the same thing, and cater to demanding, often incoherent clients. This last commonality usually means that booze and ice cream peddlers are very patient souls.
The ladies slinging scoops at Miyako's are no exception. When it’s finally my turn, they happily serve up samples of the Jamaican rum raisin, lucuma (a Peruvian fruit that tastes like squash), and grasshopper pie, followed by a chaser of banana nut. Then they suggest tastes of Halo Halo (a mashup of tropical flavors), green tea, and so on, until I exhaust the menu. Forgetting to pace myself, I then order a nut-themed Biggie Sundae (Kona coffee, black walnut, and pistachio).
As with any physical challenge, eating lots of ice cream requires good technique. Over the years, I’ve learned it’s vital to let it melt on the front of your tongue. Then savor, swallow, and pause to let your taste buds thaw. This helps to stave off palate fatigue, and more importantly, avoid triggering sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, the nerve response in the roof of your mouth commonly known as “brain freeze.” I polish off the sundae using this method before I head off to Three Twins. I am feeling spry.
Three Twins offers eight, carefully curated flavors that change daily. Two choices aren’t really ice cream (lime sorbet and a rice milk chocolate orange), but I order scoops anyway, along with lemon cookie, vanilla chocolate chip, chocolate peanut butter, and Mexican chocolate. At the manager’s recommendation, I also get a California Cliché sundae with Madagascar vanilla and Dad’s cardamom drowned in whipped cream, salty burnt caramel sauce, and olive oil.
Employing the melt-and-recover eating technique, it takes a while to pack this assortment away.
Studies in rats have suggested that foods with high-fat and sugar content trigger the release of endorphins, those natural uppers that make us feel good about ourselves and allow us to stay calm when stabbed. (Petting a kitten apparently has the same effect, but we all know what tastes better.) As I sit at the shop’s window ledge scooping my organic ice cream from my compostable cup with my compostable spoon, a warm pleasantness starts welling up in my stomach. I swallow the last of it and the happy feeling washes over me. I am downright euphoric.
By the time I get to Humphry Slocombe it’s the post-brunch shift and customers are looking to top off their Bloody Marys with something sweet. A little boy dripping with malted milk chocolate ice cream and topping remnants puts on a show by flailing his arms and legs, pausing only to beat his chest and scream. Poor kid doesn’t know how to handle his ice cream.
I dive in and order a scoop of all 24 flavors (give or take a few sorbets) from the mysterious Secret Breakfast (bourbon and cornflakes) to the peanut butter curry (Thai peanut sauce turned dessert), and take a seat under the shop’s mascot, conjoined calves heads hanging on the wall.
Six scoops in, I become very thirsty. My tongue has turned into terrycloth, inducing a palpable degree of panic. I down three cups of water. I imagine licking a lemon, then drinking battery acid, but my salivary glands don’t react. Through the din of the crowd, I can hear my own heartbeat.
I’m starting to think I’ve overdone it. I eye the 30-foot spread at Bombay Ice Cream through a haze. The offerings include every classic flavor plus some unique house varieties like Saffron Rose and Falooda (sweet, pink corn flour noodles dotted with basil seeds). I start pointing at the flavors I can’t find anywhere else and end up clutching an overflowing pint container.
Competitive eaters say that they rarely love the food they’re cramming down their throats. (They don’t hate it either. Control over the gag reflex, after all, is key to speed.) But to preserve the pleasure they get from their favorites, the pros stay clear of them at the office. The thought crosses my mind that I may never feel the same way about ice cream again.
My cognitive skills are mending by the time I queue up in the back of a very long Bi-Rite line, but the heartbeat in my ears has escalated to a vice squeezing my temples. It hurts to talk. My stomach repeatedly tenses in a cramp and then suddenly releases, symptoms of someone who can no longer digest dairy products. The gas that accompanies lactose intolerance has not yet arrived, but psychologically, I am not doing well.
As I stare into my bowl of brown sugar with ginger caramel sauce, brown butter pecan, honey lavender, and Ricanelas (cinnamon), my jaw seems to have locked shut. I borrow Bi-Rite’s bathroom-key-on-a-whisk so I can pee to make room for more. When I get back, some of the scoops have melted into a brown sludge at the bottom of my bowl. I call a technicality and finish off just the remaining frozen bits in a few bites.
By the time I make it to Polly Ann Ice Cream, the sun is setting behind the fog and the air has the feeling of a wet towel. I want a bowl of warm salty broth with nothing chewable in it, but instead I am once again at the end of a line. This one snakes out into the darkened street. Little kids in knit caps toddle around in puffy coats, clapping their mittened hands in anticipation of frozen treats.
Polly Ann offers 48 different flavors, and this late in the experiment, the last thing I want to do is pick my poison. Fortunately, the efficient lady behind the counter senses I need intervention. She points at a sign above her head that reads, “Spin the wheel.” A mirrored, carnival wheel painted with numbers corresponding to flavors promises to do the deciding for me – and, if I’m lucky, even land me a free scoop.
“If you pick, you have to eat,” she warns. I agree to the terms.
She spins the wheel and it lands halfway between lychee sorbet and jamoca fudge almond. One is light and inconsequential, the other the equivalent to swallowing a brick. Only one is ice cream. As I crunch on the last almond at the bottom of my cup, I briefly feel a moment of triumph.
I am still thirsty, so I wash everything down with a Suicide – a blend of six sodas in a giant cup. As I stumble to the car, I toss the cup into a trashcan on the corner. The stench of rotten Chinese food and sour milk reaches up into my nose and deep down my throat. A montage of my day flashes before my eyes: a frozen marshmallow that fell down my shirt, the brown melted ice cream in the kid’s hair, the conjoined calves heads – and I throw up a little in my mouth.
I swear, it was the Suicide that sent me over the edge.
Take the tour and check out Miyako Old Fashioned Ice Cream in Japantown, Three Twins in the Lower Haight, Humphry Slocombe, Bi-Rite, and Bombay in the Mission, and Polly Ann in the Outer Sunset – but probably not all in one day. And, of course, there’s Mitchell’s in Noe Valley if you can handle the wait.