By Peggy Brawley
June 04, 1984 12:00 PM

It’s been around here for a long time, since 1700 in fact, but suddenly ice cream is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Boutiques proffering X-rated flavors and warm, off-the-griddle cones are springing up at every shopping mall, the theory being that if you can’t quite afford that Mercedes or mink, you can splurge on a double-dip macadamia nut swirl with a designer pedigree.

With $2.7 billion wholesale at stake annually—which buys more than 15 quarts for every man, woman and child in the land—there’s a rush to scoop the competition. The giant Borden company has snapped up nationwide supermarket distribution rights for Geláre, a fledgling San Diego concern with 15 franchises and an eye toward opening 30 more. Legendary Steve’s of Somerville, Mass. has been bought by Integrated Resources, which plans to open 500 stores. And Himself, first owner Steve Herrell, has started franchising under his own last name.

Already successful folk are supplementing their careers by churning out their own dream creams. Psychiatry professor Debora Phillips of Temple University School of Medicine set up Hobson’s trendy sweet shops in Santa Barbara and L.A., figuring that mental health could be had for $2 a cup as well as for $150 for an hour on the couch. Says Philip Keeney, head of the Food Science Department at Penn State and the nation’s No. 1 ice cream authority, “It’s the in thing to have your own small shop.”

Flavors proliferate. With nary a nod to calories and cholesterol—in this age of obsession with health and fitness yet—4,500 eager slurpers are expected to jam Chicago’s Hyatt Regency O’Hare next month for a weekend contest of ice cream tasting. Contest? Is there indeed a best ice cream? Claims Keeney: “The bottom line is that ice cream is a subjective thing. That’s why there are so many flavors.”

Undeterred, PEOPLE recently held a national ice cream competition. Correspondents in 29 cities were asked to submit one outstanding, knock-your-taste-buds-off flavor in each of three categories: regular, chocolate and exotics. After furious preliminary rounds—255 tongues in 38 states and the District of Columbia licked 889 flavors from 246 brands—87 possibles were further narrowed to 10 in each category. On May 8, the day before a blue-ribbon panel of eight judges assembled for the blind testing, 28 quarts packed in dry ice and shipped air express—two were bought locally—arrived in PEOPLE’S New York headquarters.

The contest was broken into three rounds. After a requisite 20 minutes softening time, the 10 regular flavors were set out—four vanillas, two fruits, two nuts, a chocolate chip and a coffee. The judges set to work with spoons, clipboards, pencils and palates. Each flavor was rated on a basis of 1 (forget it) to 5 (super) for three qualities: flavor, body plus texture, and looks. The results were weighted, with flavor accounting for 60 percent of each entry’s final rating, body and texture 30 percent and appearance 10 percent.

“Nothing like having three, four, five helpings here,” gushed Krista Tesreau, 20, who trained for her role as a judge by downing a bowl of ice cream every night while growing up in St. Louis. “This is a dream come true.” Tesreau, fresh from taping a miscarriage scene in her role as the spoiled Mindy Lewis on CBS’ Guiding Light, found solace in Butter Pecan, created by Guernsey Farms Dairy of Novi, Mich. “Good and buttery,” she noted, and gave it all 5s.

“I love vanilla, good ole creamy vanilla,” rhapsodized Ahmad Rashad, 34, a sports commentator for NBC and formerly a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. Rashad gave top marks to Toscanini’s of Cambridge, Mass. and Chubby’s Vanilla Bean from Tulsa, though he pooh-poohed Häagen-Dazs’ Coffee. “Too adult!” he wrote on his scorecard, commenting, “Coffee is for a hangover, not a dish and spoon.”

Barry Beck, 6’3″ captain of the New York Rangers, figured a hockey player was a natural to judge ice cream. “We’re used to having our faces on ice all the time,” he said, “though our ice tastes a little different.” He thought the Vanilla from Bern’s of Tampa “dull” and penned “the best” for Blueberry, tubbed by Great Midwestern of Iowa City. Skating right along with Beck for a top score for Blueberry was Justin Henry, 13, kid star of Kramer vs. Kramer—remember how Dustin Hoffman threatened him if he ate one bite of ice cream?—whose current film role is the pesky younger brother in Sixteen Candles. Dressed in preppy school togs—blue blazer, cords and untied Top-siders (“I’m too lazy to bend down and tie them”)—Justin was the first judge to turn in his ratings, then drummed two plastic spoons as he waited for the second batch.

While the table was being cleared for the chocolates, Herbert Wolff (coauthor with wife Carol Robbins of The Very Best: Ice Cream and Where to Find It) confessed, “It’s tough to walk away. Only knowing that 20 more are coming stops me from pigging out.” Wolff was decked out in black tie: “This is a great moment. We take our ice cream seriously.” Carol, a Popsicle-thin redhead, elegant in a vanilla-colored gown that she wore to her wedding eight years ago, was the most deliberate of all the judges. She tasted each offering three times, stroking the tip of her nose with her pencil, slowly sipping ice water between spoonfuls.

“My thing is chocolate,” boomed Stan Isaacs of Long Island’s Newsday, a TV sports columnist who each year chronicles his own best-chocolate contest (Häagen-Dazs always wins, nine times in nine years). “But I’m a team player at this point. I’m floundering, so much of it is bad.” Quipped Wolff: “Ahh, good man, Stan. He knows his ice cream.” Isaacs awarded no 5s during the contest. He thought Dr. Mike’s of Bethel, Conn, “a touch too dark—I never thought I would say that about ice cream”—but gave a glowing 4-plus to Haber’s of Miami.

Tisha Ford, a 13-year-old dancer and actress whose credits include The Magic Flute, a Colgate commercial and two soaps—Another World and Search for Tomorrow—called No. 20 “the pits” and No. 13 “the absolute pits.” Teased Ahmad: “If Tisha’s not good, I’m going to make her taste No. 13 again.” At home in Philadelphia Tisha breaks training as a ballerina by sneaking her policeman dad’s butter pecan. (Unwittingly true to her hometown, she had awarded top honors to Philly’s famous French Vanilla from Bassetts.)

Waiting for the third grouping, the judges sipped water and munched dry crackers to thaw frozen tongues. Then out came the exotics, which wowed ’em. “Oh, boy, this is about 35 percent butterfat,” exclaimed Wolff, who keeps trim by never eating lunch. He took another swallow of the Coconut Macadamia from Dave’s of Honolulu. “But the creaminess dominates the flavor.” Carol retorted, “No, that coconut is so sensational!”

“Carol, Carol,” sighed Herb, shaking his head. “That’s what makes us so compatible,” said Carol with a smile.

Ahmad began the final round with No. 28. “It was my number with the Vikings and I’m going to give it 5-5-5 straight across.” But after the first taste of Sherry Eggnog from the Satsuma Tea Room of Nashville, he gasped, “I’ve mismarked this! Where’s my eraser?” Along with the youngsters, he thought the liquor-laced flavors too strong. Carol, conversely, proclaimed L.A.’s Via Dolce Chocolate Raspberry Truffle “voluptuous. It has a lot of alcohol flavor. The more you eat, the more you like it.” Cookies ‘n Cream, from Cincinnati’s United Dairy Farmers, drew raves. “5!!” wrote Justin. “Awesome!” declared Beck. “The best I tasted today,” scribbled Isaacs. “Unbelievable,” sighed Tisha.

After three hours the ice creamathon was over. When the scores were tallied, Cookies ‘n Cream swept the exotics. Iowa’s Great Midwestern Blueberry and Toscanini’s Vanilla ran neck and neck for first in regular flavors. Columbus, Ohio’s G.D. Ritzy’s Richest Chocolate squeaked in a lick ahead of Haber’s.

The judges came through with good humor. (“Why shouldn’t they?” snapped an onlooker. “It wasn’t as if they were invited to an acupuncture.”) Barry decided to take a long walk home, Krista announced she was going to play her exercise records. Justin, with a last longing look at the fast-melting Cookies ‘n Cream, declared he had to get to his homework, a paper on anorexia nervosa. “Eating ice cream,” said Herb, exiting, “is the most fun you can have by yourself.”

The men behind the four tastiest flavors

Toscanini’s Vanilla

Word of mouth among college students keeps Gus Rancatore, a Boston University dropout, in business. He rarely advertises his award-winning Toscanini’s, set a few blocks from the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass. and just a couple of miles from Steve Herrell’s original store, where Rancatore apprenticed, starting as a janitor. In 1981, with less than $30,000, he opened Toscanini’s. “One of the advantages of a small store is you make and sell the ice cream very quickly,” he says. Gus, 33, and his brother, Joe, 29, a co-owner, spend 10 hours a day, seven days a week, on the job. Their Vanilla grosses over $100,000 annually—at 75 cents a scoop—though they sell more during graduations. “Parents,” says Gus, “seem to like it more than the students do.”

Great Midwestern’s Blueberry

In spite of his disastrous opening day in 1980—the freezers failed, spoiling gallons of ice cream—Fred Gratzon, 38, sells 16,000 gallons ($300,000) of Great Midwestern a year in Iowa City. His all-natural flavors contain cream, sugar, whole milk and nonfat milk, and one-fourth of 1 percent distilled soybean oil acts as an emulsifier. With a low overrun (the amount of air added to give body) of 20 percent and a high, 16.22 percent butterfat content, the Blueberry is dense and rich. “We use a lot of blueberries,” says Gratzon, “all from Michigan. I won’t accept them from any place else.” Gratzon was raised in New Jersey and took up Transcendental Meditation while a student at Rutgers. After a stint teaching TM in Providence, R.I., he moved to Fairfield, Iowa, to be near the Maharishi International University. He was drawn to making ice cream because “the ice cream in Iowa was lousy, which was a shame because it has all these great cows.” Last winter Gratzon drove through a snowstorm to get imported Indian mangoes for a flavor he created especially for a Maharishi conference, then donated a ton of “A Taste of Utopia” to the 7,000 attendees.

G.D. Ritzy’s Richest Chocolate

“We have aspirations of being a national chain,” boasts Graydon D. Webb, owner of G.D. Ritzy’s Luxury Grill & Ice Creams of Columbus, Ohio. No stranger to franchises—he spent seven years with Wendy’s—Webb, 36 and about to become a June bridegroom, helped his father man a family dairy bar 30 years ago. “When most kids were playing Little League, I was cleaning ice cream machines.” In 1980 he opened G.D. Ritzy’s (the initials are his; Ritzy is, well, ritzy), a combination chili and ice cream parlor.

Webb blends Dutch cocoa with cocoa liqueurs and cocoa powders, adds milk, cream, eggs and sugar, but no stabilizers or emulsifiers. Butterfat is high (16 percent) and air content moderate (25 percent). At 89 cents a dip for “Select” flavors and 99 cents for the “Elite,” customers lap it up—the 75-store chain takes in about $5.2 million from ice cream sales alone. Webb hears from customers when a favorite flavor is dropped. “Graydon Webb, you cur…” began a letter from an Ohio professor, bemoaning the elimination of Coconut Almond from the Ritzy A list. Even in winter one fanatic drives over 200 miles from Flint, Mich. to load a special freezer in his car.

United Dairy Farmers’ Cookies ‘n Cream

The first Lindner, Carl Sr., started making ice cream about 1910, and his sons have carried on the family tradition. Robert Lindner, 63, remembers working in the small dairy store in Norwood, Ohio back in the 1940s, when customers carried their own bowls in to be filled with ice cream. Today Robert is chairman of United Dairy Farmers, a giant 140-outlet Ohio chain that’s an outgrowth of his dad’s business. In 1982 UDF introduced Cookies ‘n Cream as one of its new Homemade flavors, a premium brand that had taken the company 32 formulas and two years to perfect. “It’s colder ice cream, and it has more texture,” says Robert. Cookies ‘n Cream is not up there with the biggies in butterfat (a mere 11 percent) and about half is air. What it does have is freshness—the plant, which was newly expanded at a cost of $3.5 million, processes milk within 12 hours of receiving it, well under the 72-hour U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendation—and Nabisco’s Oreo cookies, lots of them. When this is the way the cookies crumble, you get a great ice cream.