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I had just finished tossing my bath salts into the trash, and swept the medicine cabinet clear of cold meds, when news of ice cream’s walk on the wild side popped up on my computer. At first I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Surely, words like addiction, poison, and sin tax didn’t belong in the same sentence with a double scoop of butter pecan.
But the evidence was there in black and white. According to research released this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, ice cream is America’s number one gateway drug. You might as well walk into a meth house as cross the threshold of your local Cold Stone Creamery. Ashley Gearhardt, a psychology PhD candidate at Yale, has discovered that “hyper-rewarding” foods like ice cream “cause changes in the brain akin to what we see with tobacco and alcohol.”
She, as well as researchers Kyle S. Burger and Eric Stice of the Oregon Research Institute, fed children chocolate milk shakes made with premium ice cream while the kids’ brains were being scanned by an MRI machine. Apparently, the Häagen Dazs lit up the brain’s pleasure center in the same way a Marlboro or a martini does. Ice cream, they concluded, is an addictive drug. Rocky Road or a snort of cocaine – apparently, it makes little difference to the brain.
The case against ice cream gets worse. In repeated MRI’s, it took larger quantities of ice cream in each successive experiment to get the same pleasurable response to register in the brain as it did the first time the kids were tested. Thus, over time, the children’s brains seduced them into consuming ever-larger portions to get “high.” This explains a lot about my own tawdry, lifelong affair with ice cream – especially any that has caramel or coconut in it.
As is so often the case, a trusted family friend lured me into addiction. Mr. Nick was married to Gran Hudson’s first cousin, and I adored them both. They operated Nick’s Grocery, a small general store packed with a little bit of everything a farm family might need. A small, unpainted building pieced together with metal advertising signs, Nick’s stood across the road from New Columbus Elementary.
Our three-room school had some fine teachers, but we didn’t have much in the way of modern amenities, no central heat, no indoor toilets, and of course no cafeteria. However, we did enjoy a luxury that my town cousins envied. Every day, we were allowed to dash like lemmings across the gravel road to buy lunch at Nick’s. Back then, most any Kentucky country store could slice up a sandwich out of the lunch-meat case that would have given a New York City delicatessen a run for the money.
Nick’s, however, was a notch above the others because it had a makeshift ice cream parlor in the back. A white rectangular freezer filled with a treasure trove of frozen tubs, six across and two deep, stood against a false half-wall. Across a narrow aisle, an old church pew, painted in gray enamel and shoved up next to the Coca-Cola cooler, provided a little space to sit and savor the flavor of the day.
And so, after we’d wolfed down Miz Nick’s goose-liver sandwiches slathered in mayonnaise and washed them down with a Coke we’d filled with a nickel bag of salted peanuts, we’d line up in the back for our ice cream fix. Mr. Nick, himself, dispensed our doses.
In my memory, he resembled Norman Rockwell’s St. Nick in The Saturday Evening Post -- if Santa had gotten a haircut and shave. Mr. Nick’s blue eyes twinkled above rosy cheeks like the Santa on the magazine cover, and his suspenders stretched tight across his round belly as he laughed and bantered with us.
“Yes, we have no banana today!”
“Hey good lookin, what’s ya got cooking – butterscotch ripple?”
“Got a new flavor, you wanna try it, you better try it.”
Mr. Nick created ice cream cones with joyful abandon, talking ceaselessly as he constructed sugary pyramids, always taller than the ones he’d made the day before. They couldn’t have made any money because Nick would give us almost a quart of ice cream for a nickel, even more for a dime. He would lean, bent to his waist, to plunge the dipper into the frozen rainbow, his voice warming the freezer as he talked. Then, up he would pop with another fat scoop to pack ever deeper, ever tighter, into the cone he balanced in his other hand. When the confection was leaning like the Tower of Pisa, and not a moment sooner, he’d say, “just a little more,” and top it off with one more dollop and flash me a big smile.
Pound after pound, I’ve been trying to equal those euphoric highs ever since. Over a lifetime, I’ve sought out Graeter’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Blue Bell, and boutique concoctions in exotic locales. None, though, has ever tasted as good as those decadent cones that Mr. Nick served up with love. Now science explains why.
In places like California and Massachusetts, serious voices are urging that the legal age for eating ice cream be raised to twenty-one. The highly regarded journal Nature recently argued for “sin taxes” and restricted sales that would make it a luxury item for adults. A drug, after all, is a drug, is a drug, is a drug, they insist.
But I can’t help remembering what people used to say about the meanest man in Owen County. “He’d steal candy from a baby,” they said. I wonder if these ice cream scientists could be some of his kin? I only know this for sure – my grandchildren will never taste one of Mr. Nick’s cones, and that makes me a little sad.
R.I.P. Thurman Nicholson 1895-1966