I never used to like vanilla ice cream. In a world with so much variety and possibility, why choose meh when there is mint green chocolate chip with chocolate sprinkles. (Yeah, I said it, Philly: sprinkles!)
But then came the pandemic. And it changed our perspectives on everything, even snacking and how we pass the time — while snacking. When I saw that cookie and cracker sales shot up by 30% in the first few months of the pandemic, I was relieved to know that my kitchen isn’t the only one that looks like a corner bodega some days.
And now here I am writing what I guess amounts to an ode to vanilla-ice-cream-in-the-time-of-COVID-19.
We’ve simultaneously come a long way and not very far at all since we locked ourselves in our homes in March 2020. We now have lifesaving vaccines, but we also have rabid COVID-19 deniers prolonging the deadly pandemic. We have a new administration that seems, on most days, to be at least acquainted with reality — when they’re not telling us to “Google COVID-19 tests near me” — but hundreds of thousands of “patriots” choosing to believe in deadly delusions.
And, if you’re anything like me, you might also have a lot of extra flour in the cupboard and not enough vanilla ice cream in the freezer.
When we were first forced to isolate in our homes, I did what many did: I stocked up on flour, I baked bread, and then more bread and then more bread — more than was healthy — while reading about why so many of us were baking so much bread.
We suddenly had the time, of course. But, culinary therapists also opined, breadmaking also offered solace and connection in isolation. Plus, it just tastes really good.
But even with all those legit reasons, baking bread also struck me as an act of rebellion. Even if the world stopped, and the grocery shelves were bare, and the apocalypse came knocking, we could still make something that could sustain us until we got to the other side.
But then Year One turned into Year Two now quickly sliding into Year Three, and it’s only become more obvious that waiting for “normal” to return isn’t sustainable, or even realistic. Not for our heads or our hearts.
Life as we knew it fundamentally changed, permanently in many ways. Old priorities are not new priorities; they can’t be. Old aspirations are not necessarily new aspirations; they probably shouldn’t be. A pandemic that is inching closer to killing a million Americans and more than five million people worldwide will do that to a society.
Many of us have been stripped down to basics, to a big ol’ tub of plain vanilla ice cream. To a whole lot of meh.
Unless we consider it something on which to build anew.
“Ice cream is like a blank canvas,” said Amy Wilson, who started Milk Jawn in her kitchen back in 2012 and expects to open her first brick-and-mortar ice cream store in South Philly this year.
I was thrilled that Wilson appreciated the parallels between life and the frozen concoction. With that blank canvas of vanilla ice cream — as with our quieter, isolated, pandemic-ified lives — it’s up to us to pump up the meh.
Sticky hand to the ice cream gods, I never planned on getting an ice cream maker, despite ice cream being my emotional go-to food. (Happy? Get ice cream! Sad? Get more ice cream! Preparing for End Times? Ice! Cream!) It felt like an unnecessary purchase given how many great ice cream shops there are around here. In the Before Times, lunch was often one scoop of (my favorite) mint green (it has to be green!) chocolate chip at Bassetts in Reading Terminal Market. Until they stopped delivering to my neighborhood, I was an early pandemic Milk Jawn fanatic — dark chocolate orange, chocolate hazelnut crunch. If Zsa’s ice cream on Germantown Avenue rewarded referrals, I’d be flush in Black Magic, one of their flavors full of dense pieces of chocolate cake folded into coffee ice cream.
When my husband bought me an ice cream maker for Christmas, I wondered how fast it would end up in my graveyard of kitchen appliances. But, to my surprise, it has been in constant use — even on the coldest day in Philadelphia in three years.
I suppose it was inevitable. As a kid I had this idea for a restaurant called “Desserts First,” where patrons would dine on, you guessed it, desserts first. Because life is too short, because why put off what you want until later, or a tomorrow that’s not promised? And if anything has put that in stark focus, it’s a raging pandemic that still has many of us reevaluating our lives, our jobs, our limited time in this chaotic world.
It feels like we don’t have control over a lot these days, but as bad as things are, this might just be our opportunity to start from scratch, to take that big ol’ tub of meh vanilla we all got served back in 2020 and add only what suits us, what satisfies us, what makes us happy within the ever-changing limits of a pandemic.
Most recently for me, it was a scoop of vanilla with crumbled Asher’s dark chocolate-covered pretzels, topped with whipped cream and one whiskey-soaked “tipsy” cherry.
It was anything but meh.