Alan Richman
August 10, 1987 12:00 PM

Not long ago the ice cream industry seemed headed down a rocky road. There were no significant flavors left to invent, not with cinnamon pear brandy, lemon peppermint carob chip and chocolate caramel pecan cluster already in the stores. There seemed no trendy markets left to explore, not after $18-per-pint chocolate laced with real gold leaf startled San Francisco. The future looked bleak, as woeful as a wailing 3-year-old whose Popsicle has slipped from his hands.

Then came a concept as clear as the tinkle of an ice cream truck: the adult novelty item. No, not the kind picketed by church groups. The adult ice cream novelty, which correctly assumes that kids aren’t the only people who like to eat with their hands. Sure, most of us adults have grown old and slow and can’t chase Good Humor trucks anymore, but is that any reason to deny us the slow-dripping, tongue-licking pleasure of ice cream on a stick?

In recent years adult novelties, which include ice cream bars, sandwiches and nuggets as well as frozen juice and fruit pops, have become the fastest-growing segment of the frozen dessert market. Last year, according to the International Ice Cream Association, they accounted for $2.75 billion in restaurant, gourmet store, supermarket and street vendor sales. In recognition of this important sociological trend (and because we at PEOPLE wanted to eat more ice cream than our mothers ever allowed us), we held a tasting to find the best ice cream novelties in America.

We decided to taste test three categories: classic ice cream bars (chocolate coating over vanilla ice cream), exotic bars (unlimited—any flavor or coating) and ice cream sandwiches. Our judges were chosen from the ranks of committed ice cream eaters and included three recruits under 21, that time of life when ice cream is particularly meaningful. Donna Vivino, 9, who plays the child Cosette in the Broadway smash Les Misérables, says she likes ice cream “nice and soft—I stir it until it’s soup.” Lauren Holly, 20, who is Julie Chandler on ABC’s All My Children, is a hot fudge devotee. Dondre Whitfield, 18, who plays Vanessa’s boyfriend Robert on NBC’s The Cosby Show, grew up in Brooklyn, where he learned to avoid all the streets with drug parlors and find all the streets with ice cream parlors.

We then enlisted the taste buds of Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, a self-confessed “ice cream freak” who believes the primary advantage of flying first class is that chocolate sundaes are often on the menus, and those of movie critic Joel Siegel of ABC’s Good Morning America, who claims to be the creative genius behind Baskin-Robbins Chocolate Cheesecake ice cream. We also decided to tempt the palates of three food authorities: (1) Anne Rosenzweig, the chef for Manhattan’s acclaimed Arcadia restaurant, who still dreamily remembers a special moment in the South of France when she was served wild-strawberry ice cream; (2) Jenifer Harvey Lang, author of Tastings: The Best From Ketchup to Caviar, who is pregnant and has craved ice cream (and hamburgers) for the past several months; and (3) Robert Heller, president of the Ice Cream Connoisseurs Club of New York, who heartily recommends that singles meet over ice cream instead of drinks. I also was named to the distinguished panel, for I am an authority on eating ice cream directly from the carton while standing in front of an open refrigerator door.

Before the panel gathered to rate the 15 finalists—five in each category—a complicated winnowing process took place. PEOPLE bureaus throughout the country tested more than 130 local products, and the best of these were shipped to New York for a preliminary judging by the magazine’s New York staff. (If you have ever been host to a party for 4-year-olds, your home probably looked like our conference room after this round was done.) Finally, the 10 best ice cream bars and the five best ice cream sandwiches advanced to the final round for judging by our expert, nine-member panel (see chart, next page).

This ultimate test was conducted in the Time & Life Building under carefully controlled conditions. The ice creams—their identities concealed from the panelists—were served on bone china, accompanied by pristine English wafers and astringent iced tea as palate cleansers. A flower arrangement was removed upon order of Lang and Rosenzweig, who said the scent would interfere with their olfactory judgment. The judges were asked to rate each item from one to five, and an average of the nine scores was computed.

Although most items tallied in the low or mid range, this was not due to indifference. On the contrary. Most of the items elicited exultation or contempt, a common occurrence in blind tastings, with some scorned confections receiving scores of zero or one-half. The only item to totally escape wrath was the winner in the classic ice cream bar category, the Häagen-Dazs bar, which received the highest score of any entry. It was praised for its smooth, dark chocolate coating, its luxurious vanilla ice cream, its appealing shape and even its comfortable, stubby handle. The other categories were more tightly contested.

Special mention, sort of an Irving Thalberg-type award, must be given to the DoveBar, which is generally credited with inciting the ice cream novelty explosion. The DoveBar, a finalist in the classic bar competition, was lauded for its thick chocolate coating but downgraded for its relatively bland vanilla ice cream. (Consumer hint: Dove International’s little Rondos come in tastier French vanilla.) The DoveBar’s coating, wonderful though it may be, is not for the inattentive eater. It has been known to separate from the ice cream and slide inexorably toward the floor. With an Eskimo Pie, however, you can run for a bus and the chocolate coating won’t shake loose. It’s thin and crisp, a flashback to simpler days, and it won surprisingly high praise from all the judges.

In the exotic bar category, the winner was Dankens Chocolate Decadence, a Seattle product that narrowly beat out Steve’s brand new Cafe Amaretto Almondine bar. Both of these bars are really dessert carts on a stick, staggering concoctions of ice cream, chocolate and nuts. The frozen food engineers at both companies should be warmly praised for getting so much stuff to adhere to small pieces of wood. (Actually the nuts on the Steve’s bar don’t adhere very well, and anyone who walks around eating one leaves a little trail, like Hansel and Gretel in the woods.)

The triumphant Chocolate Decadence bar was the richest of all the entries, with chewy, incredibly fudgy chocolate ice cream rated at more than 20 percent butterfat. The bar is coated with thick dark chocolate made by Dilettante Chocolates of Seattle, then rolled in pecans and almonds. At seven ounces, it is so massive that when Leach lifted his, he remarked, “This must come with 3.9 percent dealer-approved financing.”

The finalists in the ice cream sandwich category came in for considerable criticism. “If we say they’re all bad, do they shoot the panel?” wondered Rosenzweig, who gave three of the entries a score of one-half. Before the contest we were informed by an ice cream authority, Philip Keeney, professor emeritus of the department of food science at Penn State University, that “ice cream sandwiches should be positioned for a real upgrading.” Well, we’re still waiting. Our winner was the Angel Food ice cream sandwich made by Klinke Brothers of Memphis, Tenn., a traditional chocolate wafer sandwich that defeated four nouvelle entrants. It was a clear triumph of nostalgia over ingenuity.

All the items in the contest were packed in dry ice in Styrofoam containers, sent to us by overnight courier and stored for two days in our freezers. This exposed a tragic flaw in the ice cream sandwich concept: When cookies are placed in contact with ice cream, they become somewhat leaden. “In England,” said Leach, “we are famous for our cookies—we call them biscuits—and the reason we are famous for them is we leave them alone. We don’t put them with ice cream.” Special commendation is due Cathie Sherman, a recent graduate of East Lansing High School in Michigan, for her research in this field. She is the inventor of the Melting Moments Café ice cream cupcake, which has a crushed Oreo cookie crust that never loses its crunch. The consensus of the judges was that the Melting Moments cupcake, which has a very thick chocolate fudge topping, suffered from being the final item in the judging. At that point, having already tasted 14 ice cream novelties, the judges felt that one more bite of thick chocolate fudge would send them to that big freezer in the sky.

With nine judges reviewing 15 items, a total of 135 ratings was submitted. Of these, only eight were perfect fives. The Häagen-Dazs bar received three—from Siegel, Vivino and Lang. Chocolate Decadence received two—from Lang and from Holly, who exclaimed, in commendable soap-opera histrionics, “I’ve found my five!” Vivino awarded fives to the Nestle Premium Alpine White With Almonds bar and to the Angel Food sandwich. (Because she’s 9, it’s hard for her to dislike anything made of ice cream.) I gave a five to the Strawberry Hill Fresh Raspberry bar, which combined superb dark chocolate and flavorful ice cream flecked with raspberry seeds. My exuberance was not shared by all. “I wouldn’t buy this for my enemy, man,” said Whitfield.

Another controversial item was the Gelato Classico bar, which is sold in San Francisco with either a milk chocolate or dark chocolate coating. We put it up against the dark chocolate bars in its milk chocolate configuration—a fatal miscalculation. In a comparative tasting, milk chocolate has no chance against dark chocolate unless the judges are all under 7 years old. (I tasted the dark chocolate bar the next day and believe in my heart it would have finished second to Häagen-Dazs.)

In evaluating the performance of the judges, I would have to say that we performed staunchly but not flawlessly. I was the only judge to get ice cream on his tie. (I will not reveal the identity of the famous morning television personality who got chocolate on his suit.) While we were unbiased, we were not always kind, and some were less kind than others. Holly said that Leach was much too mean and announced that when she got rich and famous, she would not invite him over to her house for dessert.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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