When someone mentions the food in To Come and Go Like Magic — fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, poke salad greens, etc. — I am reminded of all the good mountain eating I left out of the story. Sugar-cured ham and home-ground sausage come to mind, as do pinto beans with cornbread and chicken with dumplings. And there’s homemade ice cream, of course, which continues to be popular in the hills.
To be honest, I’ve never been all that enthusiastic about making ice cream. It’s a chore, and the end product never seems worth it. Besides, tasty alternatives, even in small hill towns in the 60s and 70s, were available. My mom and dad ran a country store and sold pint-sized, square “bricks” of ice cream. For a special treat, mom would use the butcher knife (usually reserved for slicing ham and thin strips of bacon, but would slide easily through frozen ice cream) to slice the “brick” into five equal pieces. We ate mostly vanilla but, when I was eight or nine years old, we started getting the cream called “neopolitan” that had three flavors — vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.
Once, when I had measles and everything I ate tasted bad, my dad and Uncle George drove into town to the local Custard Shop and brought back lime sherbet. I had never eaten green ice cream, and it quickly became a favorite. The Custard Shop’s soft vanilla was good, too, though sometimes the mix wasn’t quite right and the texture was grainy, like little bits of sand had been whirled in the cream. I had my first chocolate sundae at the Rexall Drug Store when I was in high school. I thought it was the most marvelous taste in the world — until, on my senior class trip to Washington, DC, I was introduced to hot fudge. After all these years, I’m still not sure that a dish of ice cream can get much better than a hot fudge sundae.
As I look back on those Sunday afternoons in summer when we gathered around the picnic table beneath the maple tree in our back yard to make ice cream, I realize the ice cream itself wasn’t all that important, anyway. It was the people and the process and the socializing that mattered. My dad was always in charge and Mom mixed the ingredients. Everyone else took turns filling the ice cream maker with ice and salt and turning the crank round and round until the cream turned to slush. We were an impatient lot and usually ended up spooning out the fresh cream before it had sufficiently hardened. Perhaps that’s why I never developed a real affinity for the taste and texture of homemade ice cream.
Today, one of my favorite tastes and textures is gelato. I discovered this soft ice cream in Italy many years ago and enjoy a number of flavors at my local coffee shop. Favorites: hazelnut, pistachio, almond, and coffee. When I can’t get to the coffee shop, however, my freezer is only steps away.
If you have inordinate patience and a hankering for the old days, you might like this recipe for old-fashioned vanilla ice cream by J. C. Wells of Wayland, Kentucky. The recipe comes from the cookbook, What’s Cooking in Kentucky, edited by Irene Hayes and first published in 1970 by The Hayes Book Company.
Combine: 1/2 cup milk and 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch and beat until smooth.
Add: 1 1/2 cups milk and 3/4 cup sugar
Cook in a double boiler, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Beat two eggs until light and gradually add the hot cornstarch mixture. Return the mixture to the double boiler and cook 2 minutes longer, stirring constantly. Then pour the mixture through a strainer.
Stir in: 1 cup milk, 2 cups whipping cream, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
Pour into inside container of ice cream freezer and freeze until very firm. Use a mix of 1 part rock salt to 8 parts cracked ice by measure to pack the freezer. Turn crank slowly at first. Crank until ice cream is too stiff to turn. Remove dasher. Press ice cream down firmly in can. Replace cover. Plug hole in top with cork. Drain off all water from ice and repack can with salt and ice mix, heaping up over the top of the can. Wrap the freezer with newspapers or a heavy sack. Serves 8 – 10.
Mr. Wells adds at the end of the recipe: “Avanelle mixes it, John turns the crank, and I boss the job.” When it comes to making homemade ice cream, it seems this job is pretty much like a lot of others. The “bossing” is the easy part.