Bliss arrives in icy, creamy scoops
At Jay Gees in Methuen, it was straight coffee. Across town at Findeisen's, it was cookie dough. And at Benson's in West Boxford, black raspberry.
But my favorite, the ice cream I dreamed about all winter and drooled over all summer, was the coffee cookies 'n' cream at Hodgie's Ice Cream in Amesbury. Always in a cup. Always with a sugar cone on top.
Forget Memorial Day, shorts weather, or the end of the school year. Summer starts in New England when the ice cream stands open.
After the desolate days of winter, that first cone is a sweet promise of balmy, carefree days to come.
It doesn't matter that you might need a jacket while standing in line or have to turn on the heat in the car as you eat it. Ice cream is summer.
"That first cone of the year? That's heaven," said Joyce Wright, a grandmother from Plaistow, N.H., who's been enjoying Hodgie's ice cream for more than two decades.
For a child in New England, the mom-and-pop ice cream stand is bliss after a winter of franchised frozen milk.
During the winter, my sister and I would have to agree on a flavor and commit to a half-gallon at the supermarket. In the summer, I could have my pick of 40 flavors.
And while my mother rationed out the treats into a Dixie cup in the winter, Hodgie's and the like had far more generous hands that precariously piled scoop upon scoop, even for the " 1/4-kiddie" size.
"Don't order a small, it's huge," I have advised more than one boyfriend uninitiated in the nuances of local ice cream.
Growing up in Methuen, I made it my business to know every mom-and-pop stand within 20 miles of my house; I knew which place was on the way home from the beach and which was on the way to my grandparents' place. In the summer, I tried to eat ice cream at least once a day. On a good day, I would have it twice.
This apparently isn't uncommon. Hodgie's owner Jason Regis said he eats ice cream every day in the summer, and many of his customers do, too.
"It's a staple of my diet," the father of two said with a sheepish smile.
I took this all for granted until I went to college in the Midwest, where ice cream was called "custard" and was too soft, too smooth, and too boring. Most places had only a couple of flavors, and they were rarely something you'd want to eat. Pecan turtle? Banana? No thanks.
When I moved to Florida, I thought my ice cream prospects would improve in the land of endless summer. Sadly, ice cream there is like much else in the Sunshine State: franchised in a strip mall. Most places don't make their own ice cream or have handmade signs advertising frappes. None ever offer a lime rickey.
As I stood in line at some air-conditioned chain waiting for an overpriced scoop (literally, a scoop), I longed for Hodgie's squat red-and-white building with the wood-planked porch and order window. Where Florida had parking lots, Hodgie's has a pine grove in the back with picnic tables.
"It's not the most glamorous place, but it's got character and those places are few and far between," said Scott Laing, who said he's been frequenting Hodgie's with his wife, Karen, for at least 20 years.
That's just the way Regis wants it. He fell in love with the place in high school when he worked as a scooper there and set his sights on buying it one day.
"It's just a great job," he said. "People who come up to get ice cream usually have a smile on their face."
When former owner Peter Hodge was ready to sell three years ago, he called Regis and his wife, Kelly, also a former Hodgie's scooper. The couple vowed not to change a thing.
And they haven't. A lot has changed in the years since I started eating Hodgie's ice cream. I've moved eight times, had three different jobs, and lived in four different states.
But the coffee cookies 'n cream is always the same. Always in a cup. Always with a sugar cone on top.
Editor's note: Rites of Summer is a Saturday series on simple pleasures of the season in New England.
Tania deLuzuriaga can be reached at email@example.com.