The Scoop: On Steve's


[Doodle: Robyn Lee]

I've always been a bit of a trouble maker in my mom's eyes. My daily talking-tos (or more precisely, yelling-ats) used to be triggered by such innocent things as lighting fires in places she felt should remain unburnt, or sticking things into my mouth that she felt should remain untasted. I blame these childhood dressing downs for my current state of affairs: it is now virtually my job to light fires and stick inappropriate things in my mouth. Thanks Mom.

That said, I still get in trouble with her, though for an entirely different reason that mostly involves recalling false memories and passing them off as real to online readers. The most recent offense: "I didn't raise you on Spam. I hate Spam," she told me in an irate email last week. Yeah? Then who fed it to me, or are you implying that I saved up pennies from the couch to spend on canned meat?

She's probably right, but here's one set of memories I know to be true: The original Steve's Ice Cream was the greatest ice cream in the world.

I was born in Boston and lived in Cambridge until my family moved to New York when I was four years old. Throughout my childhood, my regular trips back to Boston were marked by one distinct memory: The orange-and-blue ice cream logo I'd look for as my dad drove us from Cambridge towards Somerville to hit Steve's. Inside, the hippy-ish teens behind the counter would take a big scoop of the stretchy, chewy ice cream (sweet cream was my favorite flavor) and drop it onto the cold marble counter where they'd use two spatulas to form it into a little mound with a depression in the center, like a pile of mashed potatoes waiting for butter.

Into the depression would go a handful of crushed Heath bars (the original mix-in!), then they'd knead it back and forth, back and forth, working the candy through the mix before piling it into a cup and drizzling it with hot fudge—the proper kind, that turns chewy and gummy as it cools.

They had a little upright piano in the corner of the store, where if you were little and cute enough, you could play 'em a song for a free small scoop of ice cream. I wasn't cute enough, but my sister was.

These days, the concept of mix-ins might not seem all that impressive when mega-chains like Cold Stone Creamery and Amy's Ice Creams (started by a former Steve's employee) have taken the idea and run with it, putting franchising and dollars & cents in front of quality, but Steve's was the very first ice creamery of its kind. Indeed, the original Somerville shop, opened in 1973, is widely agreed to be the birthplace of modern ultra-premium ice cream.

What does "ultra-premium" even mean? I'm talking ice cream with extremely low overrun—the industry term for how much air is incorporated into the base as it churns. Dense, ultra-rich, ultra-creamy ice cream that is sticky, stretchy, and chewy, almost like taffy. Ice cream you can bite with your teeth and stretch away from the cone, pulling off a bit at a time, letting it slowly melt in your mouth with not a hint of iciness or wateriness. Ice cream that you have to really eat, not just lick. Ice cream that's so dense and creamy that you can polish off an entire cone before it even thinks of beginning to drip onto your hands. Reportedly, Steve himself modified his churning equipment to get it to make ice cream the way he wanted.

It's the ice cream that put Boston on the map as one of the great ice cream towns, and has spawned a culture of ultra-premium ice cream in the area. Great shops like Toscanini's, Christina's, J.P. Licks, or Emack & Bolio's most likely wouldn't exist had Steve Herrell not created a market for it. Even Ben & Jerry's owes a debt of gratitude to Steve.

So where is the chain today? Unfortunately, it hit tough times back in my early teen years. Franchise stores continued to exist and serve the same proprietary ultra-dense ice cream through the 90's, but after selling off the brand name, the corporate office decided to use Steve's name to sell pre-packaged ice cream and novelties. This did not go over well with either the franchise owners nor the lovers of the original, hand-made, mix-in-based Steve's. The company quietly slinked away by the late 90's.

Lovers of Steve's can still get a taste of his premium ice cream at Herrell's, his Northampton-based successor chain which, up until this past year, had a branch in Harvard Square as well. The only other official branch still in existence is in Huntington, NY (that'd be Cereal Eats columnist Leandra's home base, and I expect a full report). They have the same sweet cream ice cream, along with that awesome fudge.

The Steve's brand was rebooted last year by a Brooklyn-based ex-Steve's employee (take a look at their factory here) and is based largely on pre-packaged pints. I've had their ice cream, and it's fine, but it comes nowhere near the magic that Steve's in Somerville had. (Don't bother asking if you can play the piano for a pint, either).

I still haven't found ice cream that is quite as rich and dense as the original Steve's, and I somehow doubt I ever will. I supposed you always see the past through fudge-tinted glasses.