I got married in a time when people still received ice cream churns as wedding gifts. Ours is electric. Electric is fine, and it’s not cheating, but it misses the point. Churning ice cream should be an enterprise of many, one of those group efforts that prove that if you work hard, and wait, something good comes of it. If a machine is mindlessly humming away in the kitchen, like the rock tumbler that ground for weeks under my son’s bed, the results are less appreciated.
As a child, I lacked muscles, patience, and any capacity for chemistry, but I was fascinated by the dripping, glistening, silvery cylinder pulled — with effort — from the churn. There was ice cream inside that thing? How? The grown-ups referred to a “dasher” and a “paddle,” but this metal wedge looked somewhat lethal; certainly nothing like one of Santa’s reindeer or a canoe oar. What did salt, of all things, have to do with sugary ice cream? And rock salt … was that like the rock candy that I made on a string dangling in sugar water?
Actually, I still don’t get it: As salt melts the ice, the heat of fusion allows the ice to absorb heat from the ice cream mixture, which freezes the ice cream. Apparently, it’s all about aerating, but … who cares? And who cares that it’s never as creamy as commercial brands, but a granular, just-this-side-of-icy, snow-cream texture? You eat churned ice cream with a plastic spoon from a paper cup or cardboard bowl ’cause there are so many folks around for the reunion or birthday or holiday or just a Sunday supper. And you eat it fast, ’cause hand-churned ice cream melts fast.
Doesn’t matter that the scoop dotted with peach or strawberry or peppermint bits — don’t attempt chocolate; just let Dairy Queen have the rights — can’t stand up to butterscotch or chocolate syrup. Doesn’t matter that you might taste the teeniest bit of salt along with the fruity or minty flavor; that’s what makes cranked cream the real thing.
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Yes, yes, yes. There are a jillion ways, available on the Internet, to make ice cream in your freezer now, or some version of it. I love my mother-in-law’s recipe for lemon ice, with lemonade mixed into melty, then refrozen, (commercial) vanilla ice cream.
But to be authentic and American and simultaneously Southern and summery, find yourself a wooden ice cream churn. Then find rock salt in the grocery store. Good luck with that. You’ll need a porch, a carport, a back stoop, or level ground beneath a tree, because churning needs to be done outside, and it’s work. Hot work. Churners need shade. Churners also need lawn chairs. (Look at an ice cream churn. No one churns standing up.) Gather friends, kin, and bicep braggers; assign shifts; and enjoy that comforting crunkleshumm noise, a slurry-ish sound of the nicest sort. Let someone else figure out what to do with the salty water.
Quit the crank. Extract the dasher. Take a spatula to the sides. Spoon it up. Regard the lowly ice cream churn and realize, once again, that something you have to work for makes enjoying it all the sweeter.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.