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The good old summertime

by Debbie Carini

When temperatures soar to the triple digits, people start to look for ways to keep cool—from jumping in the pool to running through the sprinklers to sitting in an air-conditioned home to watch all iterations of Law and Order, whether it be the original series, SVU, Criminal Intent (that would be me, by the way; I’ve probably experienced the equivalent of going to the police academy and law school in just the past month.)

Collectively, though, our family’s favorite way to beat-the-heat involves Tom Carvel, Dairy Queen and Margaret Thatcher. It’s called soft serve ice cream!

Everyone has a memory of a beloved childhood food to which they can no longer find access. Mine is a fried dough that my Italian grandmother made—we called them “gundah-noonahs,” which is the phonetic spelling of the word my nana used; I have seen them called zeppoli, pizza fritta, sfinges and more, but never tasted anything as spectacular as hers. She sprinkled them with salt, not sugar, and they were like warm, crispy clouds of heaven.

My husband’s favorite food memory involves growing up in New York with unlimited access to soft serve ice cream, which was invented by either Tom Carvel in 1934, J.F. McCullough (one of the founders of Dairy Queen) in 1938 or by Margaret Thatcher during the late 1940s. The future UK Prime Minister worked briefly as a chemist for food manufacturer J. Lyons and Co. at a time when the company had partnered with the US company Mister Softee, and was developing a soft-serve recipe.

When we first moved to Southern California, my husband made do with frozen yogurt, but he always longed for a soft-serve cone. I?once said to him, “You know, there was a place where I grew up (about 20 minutes by freeway from our current location), that had amazing soft serve ice cream, but it’s probably gone,” much like the K-Mart, the downtown movie theater and so many of my childhood haunts.

It was a warm summer night and at the time our house had no air-conditioning, so we piled the kids in the car and headed-out out to my old hometown.

Every summer, my sister and I saved our precious coins from returning bottles and cans we found in all manner of tetanus-inducing spots to do two things: rent, for an hour, a bicycle-built-for-two at the local U-Haul lot, and buy soft serve ice cream.

As we drove through my old neighborhood, I remembered the ferocity with which my sister and I pedaled to the Covina Tasty (formerly a Tastee-Freez franchise). I did not want to look out the car window and find that it had become a Starbucks. And then, there it was, the familiar orange sign, capped by a lit-up, tilting ice cream cone.

I had a moment’s worry when I saw in big lettering across the front window the word VEGETARIAN, but it turned out I had little to fear. Though the place has become known for its vegan fare, it still pumps-out soft-swirled chocolate, vanilla or combo cones. My husband had his with a cherry dip (a warm, gooey coating that hardens to the consistency of wax lips).

Since that first visit, we have returned many, many, many times—always on a whim, always when it’s hot, and always with the knowledge that someday, our kids will tell their kids, “there once was this place that served vegan corn dogs...and the most amazing soft serve swirls.” Just bring lots of napkins.