If it wasn't for a mid-July Tweet from New York Times writer and Spoon Fed author Kim Severson (@kimseverson: "Learn all about yer midwest ice cream history. A cool book by the @DispatchKitchen editor"), Robin Davis Heigel's Graeter's Ice Cream: An Irresistible History might have flown under my reading radar.
While I've never had the pleasure of sampling this Ohio-born ice cream in one of their actual shops (Jeni's Splendid had my full attention during my most recent—well, only—trip to Ohio), I have sampled Graeter's pints via their popular mail-order operation. And I'm not the only one.
They've developed dedicated fans across the country, including many A-List ice cream lovers. Oprah Winfrey is among their celebrity fans and, in fact, it was Ohio native James Frey (pre-Oprah controversy) who first turned me on to Graeter's.
Earlier this summer I was e-mailing my friend Ted Lee about Graeter's versus Jeni's Splendid, and he used an apt cocktail analogy: "They're very different. It's an old-school/new-school thing, like Bemelmans versus Pegu Club."
I think it can be agreed that Ohio is certainly big enough for two regional ice cream dynamos with national appeal—and hopefully big enough for two ice cream books. Next spring, Jeni Britton Bauer's Jeni's Splendid cookbook will be published by Artisan (home of Thomas Keller's award-winning books).
The mission statement of The History Press, Graeter's publisher, is to "showcase a community's character through story and picture" in books that are "highly readable, often brief, and aimed at a general readership." Among their spring 2010 list you'll find titles like Strange Maine: True Tales from the Pine Street State, Witches, Wenches & Wild Women of Rhode Island, and Title Town USA: Boxing in Upstate New York (about my hometown, Canastota, New York).
Graeter's: An Irresistible History is definitely "brief"—just 128 pages long. It's written by former San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Robin Davis Heigel, who is now the food editor at the Columbus Dispatch. Fun fact: she's also the author of The Star Wars Cookbook: Wookie Cookies and Other Galactic Recipes (!).
The story of Graeter's begins with Louis Charles Graeter, the son of German immigrants, who left Indiana, settled in Cincinnati, and began selling ice cream at a Sycamore Hill street market. The success of Graeter's all comes back to a simple formula of cream, sugar, and eggs magically united in the "French pot" method of making ice cream: introducing the custard into a spinning, chilled steel cylinder as a blade runs along the sides of the pot, gently churning the mixture. And like snowflakes, their signature chocolate chips (as found in their bestselling flavor, Black Raspberry Chip) are never the same size, the results of the liquid bittersweet chocolate being poured into the mix, freezing across the top a la Magic Shell, then chopped up with a paddle.
And for 140 years—through ice cream innovations like soft-serve, milkshakes, super-premium brands, and "far out" artisanal flavors—Graeter's have maintained their small-batch philosophy. In fact, as hard as it is to believe, their machines are still turning out ice cream in 2.5 gallon batches, and pints are packed by hand.
The book recounts the timeline of the Graeter's story using a Forest Gump-style shorthand of Cincinnati history (World War II, the civil rights movement, Marge Schott). But despite untimely death (founder Louis Charles Graeter was killed in 1919 when struck by car while exiting a trolley), sibling rivalry, generational growing pains and family feuds, Graeter's lacks the narrative drama that's found in Stacy Perman's In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules, another homespun, American culinary success story that transformed into a pop-culture institution.
While it does a fine job of recounting the Graeter's family history through ice cream and will certainly appeal to Graeter's fans, especially those living in Ohio, the book can read like an extended press release at times. Ultimately, a single scoop of Grater's Black Raspberry Chip ice cream might be a tastier delivery system, telling all you everything you need to know about Graeter's in one delicious lick.
About the author: Brad Thomas Parsons is a Brooklyn-based writer who has interviewed many of the food world's biggest names, including David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Danny Meyer, Ina Garten, Jamie Oliver, Paula Deen, and Giada De Laurentiis, among others. He is currently at work on his first book, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails and Recipes.