The human brain is an amazing thing. It can conceive pyramids, space travel and the Popeil Pocket Fisherman.
But when the brain confronts the menu board at ice cream shops, synapses break apart, neurons scatter in chaos, and all functions cease. We stand gaping, unable to pick from the listed flavors--chocolate Jack Daniel's, mocha almond swirl, lemon anise, cinnamon apple, etc. The human brain can process only a certain amount of information at any one time.
More than 1,000 ice cream flavors exist, although we somehow doubt the commercial viability of garlic, avocado, jelly bean or even date-nut pudding ice cream. Baskin Robbins promises 31 flavors. Marble Slab generally offers 18, from the highly popular sweet cream to bubblegum. Milwaukee Joe's, a mid-cities favorite, lists 20, including a blue concoction called "Disco Lives" that looks like frozen creamed Smurf and tastes like a mouthful of SweeTARTS. "It's for the kids," says Emily Bain of Milwaukee Joe's Southlake location. "Kids order by color." Shops on the Penn State campus serve something called Peachy Paterno, consisting of--and we're guessing here--peaches mixed with dead epidermal matter from Joe Paterno's scalp. We refused to even look at the ingredients on a carton of Chunky Monkey.
But how many flavors do we really need?
"Just one--chocolate," assures ice cream eater Jill Cantrell. Later she conceded the need for vanilla "because you can put chocolate sauce on it." Despite the availability of ice creams flavored with fruit or nuts or candy or gummi bears, vanilla and chocolate remain the most popular flavors in the United States. Vanilla alone accounts for more than half of the ice cream consumed in North America and more than a quarter of all supermarket sales, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. Yes, we stand in line at the shop, study the menu board intently, glance at each open container of ice cream at the counter and boldly order vanilla. Or chocolate.
Staff members at both Marble Slab and Milwaukee Joe's consider sales of vanilla and chocolate a constant, but they say other flavors achieve steady sales thanks to the vagaries of individual tastes. A few even become trendy for a while. "You typically order only one or two flavors, but you need the variety to satisfy all tastes," explains Bob Horn. "They should have a beer-flavored ice cream." Chris Zupa agrees--about the need for variety if not for beer ice cream. "I typically go for vanilla or cookie dough," he says, "but once every blue moon I'll try something different." Then there's Chip Mabie, sitting at Milwaukee Joe's, spooning a dish of something with chunks (it may have been monkey; he wouldn't let us have a taste). "I try to order something different each time," he says.
It's an odd thing, really. Only 30 to 40 percent of registered voters typically vote. Some 70 percent or so support environmental protection, even while cruising around in SUVs spotted with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers. But 91 percent of American households buy ice cream. We can't agree on school choice or a woman's right to choose, but we fully support--demand even--the right to ice cream choice for all. We know from old documents that even George Washington, the guy on the money, spent $200 on ice cream in 1790. That's equivalent to $5 billion in today's dollars. (We're guessing again, but it sounds about right).
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Damn we're a shallow bunch.
On the other hand, if freedom of choice only extends so far, why not ice cream? "Sure, a lot of people order vanilla, chocolate or strawberry," Bain admits. "But a lot of people are also willing to try things. It really depends on the person." The United States leads the world in ice cream production. American creameries ship more than 1.6 billion gallons of ice cream annually, enough for each person in this country to down almost 24 quarts. As Danny Black, ordering a cone at Marble Slab, says, "It's cool to have a big selection."
The question still stands, however. How many flavors do we really need?
"We need 32 flavors," answers Steve Torgerson, referring to the 31 stocked by Baskin Robbins. "It's the one they don't have that you always want."