Ice cream's Big Dipper


Washington Post

Associated Press photo

John Harrison, head taster for Edy's Grand Ice Cream, savors a golden spoonful. He seems to regard his 61-year-old tongue, which is famously insured for a million dollars, as a violinist regards a Stradivarius. Now on a multi-city tour inviting kids to create new flavors, Harrison is pictured in a suburban mall in Washington, D.C.

The portly man in the lab coat, polka-dot bow tie and saddle oxfords opens his mouth over and over like a goldfish, making a smacking noise, a sort of fatty, satisfied exclamation point.


He rolls the ice cream around in his mouth. Ordinarily, John Harrison, head taster for Edy's Grand Ice Cream, would spit it out, since his job is to sample but not consume. But this is not the Union City, Calif., factory where he works. He senses that spitting ice cream might be inappropriate while sitting in a suburban food court. So he swallows. Then, because this is his favorite flavor, he takes a little more.

“I love vanilla,” he says. Smack! “Take another sample. I want you to aerate it this time.”

Harrison stares intently, smacking loudly and waving his hand in front of his mouth like he's conducting a tiny orchestra on his tongue. You might think the collective tastings of decades would dull his palate to ice cream, but Harrison boasts often that his taste buds are in their prime.

He seems to regard his 61-year-old tongue as a violinist regards an exquisitely sensitive Stradivarius. It is the product of a lifetime’s craftsmanship, a triumph of specialization. One of the most publicized facts about Harrison is that his tongue is insured for a million dollars. Think of all the soy lecithin and guar gum that tongue has experienced in its lifetime. Think of how it detects the differences between regular vanilla, French vanilla and vanilla bean. Sometimes Harrison uses it for dramatic emphasis, as when speaking of the “flavor fatigue” he gets while eating certain kinds of gelato.

“Huuuuh,” he says, opening his mouth wide and sticking out his tongue like a displeased baby.

Like a wine taster, Harrison speaks of top notes, aromas and bouquets, but unlike a wine taster, he also uses the term “brain freeze,” also known as ice cream headache. In developing new flavors and doing quality control for Edy’s and its parent company, Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Harrison has learned to detect when ice cream has turned, and when it has suffered from “temperature abuse.” He knows when a flavor calls for 12, 14 or 16 percent butterfat, when it has too many walnuts and when it has too few. He is prone to such statements as: “The biters want nothing to do with the lickers.”

In his breast pocket, Harrison keeps a thermometer, for measuring ice cream temperature, and a spoon, plated in gold to leave no aftertaste. His lab coat is decorated with telltale smears. In town last week during a multi-city tour inviting kids to create new flavors, Harrison bought 10 flavors of ice cream (Edy’s of course) from a stand in the mall and stuck his pocket thermometer into one cup to wait for his ice cream to warm to between 10 and 12 degrees.

He then launched into a sermon on “how to care for your ice cream.” In that precise, pedantic style popular among Sunday school teachers, with all the requisite moral weight, he begins with the sins of the grocery store.

“Most people today are putting ice cream in what kind of package to bring it home? Plastic bag. Big deal. Does zero for protecting ice cream. ... You’ve got to take charge here. It’s your ice cream and it’s your fun eating experience.”

The American people should place their ice cream in two paper bags, roll down the top to seal them, Harrison explains, “and then go directly home. Don’t go by the laundromat. Don’t go by the hairdresser.”

When it's time to eat the ice cream — which has been properly stored in the back of the freezer — three factors come into play, Harrison says.

“Initially we all eat with our — ? Eyes, that’s correct,” Harrison says. “So appearance is paramount.” We figure that explains the cup of pistachio in front of him, which is the bright green of an old lady’s bathroom.

Next, consider texture.

“We've all experienced some of those defects,” he says in a knowing tone. “Cold, coarse, icy, fluffy, gummy.”

Last, of course, there is flavor. Harrison says he lives by the Three S’s: Swirl, Smack and Spit.

“That swirling is covering all 9,000 taste buds. The smacking is bringing in the ambient flavor.” He taps the spot in between his brows, explaining that the “top note” will hit the olfactory nerves. “Vanilla, mango, chocolate, strawberry. Most of the experience is happening up here,” he says.

At last, he places the mango in front of us — a little sorbet to clear the palate. We dip in.

He gestures to his chin. “That’s the acid down here,” he says, referring to the tartness, then raises his hand to that spot between his brows. “But all the flavor’s up here. Isn’t that fun? Isn’t that marvelous?”

Next comes the vanilla.

“I start with the white wines, the lightest flavors first,” Harrison explains, then “work up to the Bordeaux.” He progresses to Strawberry Cheesecake Delight (”I want you to get right out here where it’s beginning to melt”) and Double Caramel Decadence (”Rich, rich”) and then Rum Raisin, which tastes to us a little like Bailey’s Irish Cream.

Harrison begs to differ. “Bailey’s would be whap-whap,” he explains, inexplicably.

He grabs the next cup.

“That's Dutch Chocolate,” he says, leaning his nose into the cup and smelling it. “Isn’t that — clean! Clean’s the word.” We smell it. It smells like chocolate.

Then on through no-sugar-added Butter Pecan and Mint Chocolate Chip.

“That’s a triple-distilled creme de menthe, 12 percent butterfat, semisweet chocolate chips,” says Harrison.

He turns philosophical. At various times in ice cream history, he says, certain flavors have swept the nation. There was Rocky Road, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Harrison’s own triumph, Cookies N’ Cream, which he says he invented in 1982. Now it’s about time for a new winning flavor.

He quotes Ecclesiastes. Since there is nothing new under the sun, the ice cream taster’s job is to mine existing flavors for a magic combination. “I’m always tasting, I don’t punch the clock,” he says. “I never turn down a dessert tray.”

And then John Harrison is away to continue his quest, taking his golden spoon and his golden tongue with him, off to smack his way toward the grail of perfect ice cream. A few drops of melted vanilla are the only evidence he was ever here.

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