The sweet taste of regression

Explaining and exploring Maine's ice-cream cravings
By BRIAN DUFF  |  August 4, 2010

SCOOPING IT UP Local flavors can be quite experimental.
What explains the current craze for ice cream in Maine, which has resulted in several new businesses and recently overcame the nation's President? Sure, it's one of the hottest summers on record, and yes, ice cream is an affordable indulgence in a tough economy. But gazing upon the transfigured visage of a Mainer mid-lick, it is clear ice cream's appeal lies deeper. As I have previously argued in these pages, desserts play to different parts of our psyche. Ice cream goes straight for the Id. In licking a cone, the unconquered infant within achieves regressive union with the milky sweetness.

The Bar Harbor shop that hosted Obama's recent moment of sweet nostalgia, Mount Desert Island Ice Cream, has opened a parlor on Exchange Street in Portland. MDI is modern and sleek as ice cream parlors go, with Mondriany prints, candy-colored buckets of nothing lining a shelf, and few seats. But the shop is inviting and the kids who scoop are the traditional upbeat teens. They won't build their biceps much this summer, since MDI's ice cream has a fluffy, soft quality straight out of the tub. This is premium stuff — smooth, creamy, and even, with nary an ice crystal to be found. But it's also unpretentious, and they are not afraid to sprinkle on some jimmies for the kids. A scoop of chocolate-coconut showed some subtlety and restraint with the flavors — which emerged together slowly on the tongue rather than fighting to assert their dominance. A terrific bourbon-raisin was true to its liquor. The fumes invaded the sinuses and the raisins were juicy with alcohol. Even better was a salt-caramel, which managed to have the slightly thick texture of taffy blended into every molecule. A curry-banana sorbet, with the texture and sheen of mashed banana, was unusual and intriguing — but accessible enough that it was eagerly finished by a seven year old.

Down at Willard Square in South Portland, Willard Scoops is in its second summer. Willard only recently weaned itself off MDI's ice cream to start making their own in-house, so it was interesting to compare the salt-caramel flavor. The texture is not quite as thick at Willard and the salt is more pronounced. They mix in some candied almonds that offered a pleasant crunch and bursts of sweetness. Their ice cream is a bit harder as it hits the cone, but softens up nicely. A flavor called Sunburn, which mixed habenero chilies into strawberry ice cream, was the best I tried this week. Each lick contained two seconds of fruit and then a half-second of heat, followed by a creamy finish. Willard has a nice looking little shop, filled with Skittle colors, small tables inside and out, and slightly edgy teens.

It's a whole different world at Harbor Scoops, located on the busy corner of Cumberland and Washington Avenues, which features the edgiest servers (they are also quite pleasant). The awning offers little shelter from the sun, and a single bench edges the confusing parking lot. But at just $1.50 for a small cone, this is the working man's ice cream and it's just fine. At those prices you can bring along the neighbor's kids and not resent it. The kids won't resent it either since the scoops (from Smiling Hill Farm) come in classic Technicolor and simple, sugary flavors. The chocolate tastes exactly like Hershey's syrup.

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Related: Twisted ice cream, Review: Tucker's Bistro, Review: Le Central, More more >
  Topics: Food Features , food, summer, ice cream,  More more >
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