Deep Vanilla


by Jenny White

Gus Rancatori is a Renaissance man who owns an ice cream parlor. Cambridge-based Toscanini’s is a hangout where you’re as likely to run into a Nobel Laureate in chemistry and a molecular foodie as a furniture maker or novelist. One day I met a dapper man with gray hair who had been a physicist at MIT and gave it all up to start a business making high-end marshmallows. Tosci’s staff is memorably pierced and talented. One of the managers, Adam Tessier, is a published poet and essayist who last year filmed a customer a day reading a Shakespeare sonnet. Some scoopers are music majors, hard-core rockers who play for bands with names like Toxic Narcotic. You might receive your khulfee cone from the hands of the next big pop star. Gus Rancatori circulates through the wood-paneled room beneath displays of art, the host at a rotating feast of words, ideas and, above all, ice cream. Gus is discreet, but has some favorite customer stories.

A very famous MIT type used to attempt to pay with his own hand-drawn funny money and then he would launch into a lecture about the symbolic value of money, which I tried to squelch by claiming to remember that class from Freshman Economics. If you asked to help him, he would say, “I'm beyond help.” When another MIT student found out that I didn't have a computer he offered to give me one, so strong were his evangelic instincts and also, like many of the customers, he was exceptionally generous.

With one hand Gus makes what The New York Times has called “the best ice cream in the world”; the other takes the cultural pulse of the city.

He has published a mini-memoir, Ice Cream Man, and writes a column for The Atlantic — close observations on what we can know about society through ice cream.

Customers! They're so nice. They're so weird. Some of them are so naked. We get a big cross section. We're near MIT but we're also in Central Square near a housing project. We get people who don't speak English because they're incredibly smart and have come to MIT and we get people who don't speak English because they just snuck into this country. We get people from nominally Spanish-speaking countries who don't speak Spanish. I like to hire people who can speak other languages. It can help in the store.

We often discuss the customers after a long night and I think most of us would agree that some of the most difficult customers are suburbanites who come into town on weekends or during the summer and are a little lost. Maybe I'm seeing anxious tourist behavior, but it often seems that adults from the suburbs like to play a little stupid when they're out of their element, “Look at this, honey, they have Saffron ice cream!” Any customer is capable of asking a question that is not really what they want to ask. “What's in the Goat Cheese Brownie?” really means, “Can I taste the Goat Cheese Brownie?” A customer once pointed at the chocolate ice cream and asked if it was vanilla. My playful brother, Joe, said, “Yes. It is.” The customer thought for a minute and said, “I thought vanilla was white.” My brother feigned surprise and slapped his forehead, “My God. You're right. That is chocolate.” When customers arrive while we're mopping the floor and all the chairs atop tables, they ask “Are you closed?” Obviously we're closed, but they want to ask, “Can we still get something?” and if it is at all possible we try to serve them something, but something to go, so we can finish cleaning and go home ourselves.

Time takes on a cultural dimension in the shop, as people develop a circadian rhythm in which the cosmos aligns with their stomach: I can do this important thing here and only here, now and only now, and I need French Toast to do it.

Some customers are like Japanese trains. Every morning at 8:45 AM they get a double espresso or every night they come to study and begin with a White Peony tea. One customer only drank nocciola frappes and when he died suddenly his friends at MIT all came to the store after a memorial service and drank nocciola frappes. An accountant often arrives just before we stop serving weekend brunch and is upset when we are out of breakfast items. “This is very important to my week. Why do you always run out of French Toast?” Another was indignant when we asked people to leave after our 11 PM closing. We need to get home, catch a bus or subway, or simply lock the doors to keep any night goblins outside. Many people do not like our policy prohibiting the use of computers for a few hours every week. People think we are intentionally serving unusual flavors they like when they're not in the store; we make Cocoa Rum Chip every other week, but they only come occasionally. We try to set aside special flavors for special people, but customers also have “commitment issues” about ice cream flavors.

For the IgNobel Awards, an internationally broadcast spoof of the Nobel Prizes held at Harvard University, Gus developed a new ice cream flavor as homage to the discovery by 2007 IgNobel Chemistry Prize winner, Mayu Yamamoto, that you can extract vanillin from cow dung. (Gus admitted that his recipe for Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist did not include poop.) When I pointed out to Gus that he treats ice cream the way a novelist regards a blank page, he responded,

The idea of ice cream as a blank page might be very appropriate. I think about many things but it is easy for any idea to slip across the surface of my mind and end up as an ice cream flavor. Flavors come about from mistakes and misunderstandings. Ginger Snap Molasses was the result of wordplay. Steve's Ice Cream made Ginger Molasses and I wanted to get the cookie, the word “snap” and the idea of that snap into the flavor or at least flavor name. Black Bottom Pie came about while reading a cookbook one morning when I should have been getting to work. Jeremiah Tower, the first chef at Chez Panisse, described a favorite dessert from Alabama and I realized I had all the ingredients but should probably invert everything. So instead of making a chocolate rum pie with a ginger snap crust, I made a Chocolate Rum ice cream containing pieces of ginger snap cookies. I have a lot of curiosity and even a food as simple as ice cream can provide a large playing field.

Running rough-and-tumble on the playing field of food, fun, and social analysis, Gus, together with the anthropologist Merry “Corky” White, puts on a semi-underground annual food film festival that in its execution itself becomes a piece of performance art. Graduate students from Harvard and MIT volunteer their technical and lugging skills. The festival uses scavenged equipment and university rooms opportunistically acquired for that evening’s showing. Sometimes the films are shown in a room repurposed from a small swimming pool, chairs set inside the tiled chin-height walls. While watching the movie, you imagine Harvard men in knee-length bathing suits taking bracing morning constitutionals.

The films are usually accompanied by a speaker reflecting its theme, and Corky, an accomplished cook, makes film-appropriate food. After “Ratatouille”, the animated movie about a rat assisting a young Parisian from beneath his chef’s hat, the food critic Corby Kummer regaled the audience with stories from the field, but what the audience saw was the snooty food critic in the film, to whom Kummer bore a remarkable resemblance. Then Corky served up samples of ratatouille. When Gus and Corky realized the series was attracting a covey of attendees who skipped the movie and came just for the food, the series went even further underground in a game of cat and mouse (or rat) with the film grazers.

Food and drama embrace on screen and off. “The Kings of Pastry” is a documentary that follows three pastry chefs in the grueling competition for France’s most prestigious pastry title. Some of the men broke down under the pressure, their enormous sugar confections toppled, lifelong dreams ground to sugar dust. The audience in the borrowed Harvard room was tense; in the film, the judges were about to announce the winners. Just then there was a commotion at the door; members of the student shooting club claimed to have booked the room and demanded that we surrender it immediately. But we all remained in our seats, eyes glued to the drama on the screen, our noses twitching at the platter of Corky's cream puffs waiting on the table.

What is the secret of this enthusiasm for food — not just for nurturance, but as a philosophical platform and for “deep play”?

The mysteries of ice cream? Moving past the maternal link I think the fundamental appeal of ice cream is juvenile. It is a food you get to play with and is actually improved by that combined stirring-melting spoon business. As you soften the ice cream it warms. Cold numbs taste buds so warming up the ice cream actually does make it taste better. It is the little boy's equivalent of letting wine breathe.

Playing with your food can be hedonistic and it can be dramatic, fusing our passions in one grand gesture of denial. You cannot have my Dulche de Leche. You may not pass. One customer was mugged when he refused to surrender a pint of ice cream to teenage thieves. And on another occasion the police caught a fleeing thief after first bringing him to heel with a well-aimed Toscanini frappe.

(Photo credit: Merry White)