The inside scoop on ice cream

If you remove the cherry from a sundae, strip off the whipped cream, hot fudge, and the nuts, what are you left with? The ice cream, of course. Or as Michael McGarry would say, the most important part of the sundae.

But not all ice creams are equal. That's why Mr. McGarry spent two months traveling and tasting his way across the Midwest. His goal: compile a list of the best places for ice cream, frozen custard, and gelato in the region, so that travelers with a sweet tooth will never have to go without. His new book, "Midwest Scoops" (Fancy Pants Press, $12.95), is just hitting stores. (East Coast and West Coast guides are also available.)

If a travel guide for ice cream lovers sounds a bit odd, consider the high cost of gasoline this vacation season. Not to mention the disappointment when a good-looking scoop of chocolate - or vanilla - sets you back $4 and then turns out to be just a bland, sticky trickle running down your chin.

But there are ways to avoid such disappointing encounters, McGarry says. Simply follow the aficionado's check list: Ask, watch, sniff, and sample.

The first two are obvious enough. Ask local residents which shops they would recommend, and then look at how much foot traffic they get. A steady stream of customers is a good sign. So is the scent of freshly baked cones. The reason: Any shop that makes its own cones is likely to put great care into making its own ice cream, he says.

If you're still not sure you should plunk down your money, take a good look at the tubs of ice cream. "If there is a banana flavor, and it's bright yellow, they're using artificial flavors and colorings," he says. "If it has a grayish hue, then it's actually made from bananas. The same is true with pistachio ice cream. You don't want it to be bright green."

Finally, ask the counter help for their recommendations, and for a few samples. "Taste before you order it," he says. "It's your right and your duty to do that." Most shops will gladly give out three samples per person, as McGarry learned during his research. Five is pushing it.

Once you've ordered, sit back - or stand - and savor the moment. "Ice cream just makes you happy," McGarry says. "You can't be mad while eating ice cream."

Indeed, most people wax poetic, or at least nostalgic, about favorite ice cream stands. McGarry remembers one boyhood summer when he and his father ate banana splits three times a week at Gifford's in Bethesda, Md. Each was "large enough to feed a family of five."

But it was in Rome a few years ago that McGarry, a skinny guy, had what he calls his "pivotal ice cream moment." Make that a gelato moment. While his wife visited museums, working toward her PhD, he earned advanced proficiency in the sweet treat. "I was knocked back by how good it was," he says. He even wrote a book about the best places to buy gelato in Italy.

What impresses him in the US is how far the artisanal ice cream movement has come. More and more ice cream artists, as he calls them, are experimenting with new flavors and taking the time to find the freshest seasonal ingredients. (One woman he knows makes strawberry-rhubarb ice cream.) Others will roast nuts by hand, for example, and buy cream only from small small local dairies.

What doesn't thrill McGarry is the use of mix-ins. "At a lot of ice cream chains, the ice cream isn't that great unless you throw in a Snickers bar," he says.

This is just one of the lessons McGarry plans to teach his son, who is 15 months old. The little boy got his first ice cream when he turned 1. Not surprisingly, "his eyes lit up."

What excites his father, though, is the idea of passing along the ice cream parlor experience. "Each stand has such a great story," he says. "Certain parlors have been around for 100-plus years, and I don't think the community could get along without them."

That sense of community is one reason many people tend to buy from the same place again and again, McGarry says, rather than expanding their range. But he encourages folks to add ice cream to their travel itineraries this summer. "It doesn't take a reservation, it's a cheap little treat, and everyone is equal."

Test your ice cream IQ

How much ice cream is produced annually in the United States?

A. Enough to fill the Queen Mary.

B. Enough to fill the Rose Bowl.

C. Enough to fill the Grand Canyon.

If you answered C, you're probably a consumer of some of the 1.4 billion gallons of ice cream produced yearly in the US. The sweet treat - and its equally popular cousins gelato, frozen custard, sherbet, and frozen yogurt - is a lucrative industry that racks up more than $20 billion a year in sales.

From its origins in ancient Mesopotamia and Nero's Rome, to its popularity in Renaissance courts and 17th-century Parisian cafes, ice cream was served in many countries long before its first recorded US appearance in the 1700s. But while it may not have been an American invention, it has certainly become an institution here. Dolley Madison made it all-American, Baskin-Robbins popularized inventive flavors, and Ben & Jerry's put super-premium on the map. In 1984, President Reagan declared July to be National Ice Cream Month.

Here are some other ice cream facts:

• The United States produces more ice cream per year than any other country.

• Per capita, New Zealanders eat the most ice cream - 55.5 pints per person annually.

• California makes more ice cream than any other state.

• Residents of Portland, Ore., eat more ice cream than those of any other US city.

• The most popular flavor of ice cream is vanilla, followed by chocolate, butter pecan, strawberry, and Neapolitan.

• The favorite ice cream topping is chocolate syrup.

• It takes approximately 50 licks to polish off an average single-scoop cone.

• The largest ice cream sundae in the world was made in 1988 in Alberta, Canada, and weighed 54,914 pounds.

• An ice cream shop in Venezuela, Helados Coromoto, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as serving the most flavors: 550.

• Ninety-eight percent of all US households purchase ice cream.

• More ice cream is sold on Sunday than any other day of the week.

Sources: www.icecream.com, International Dairy Foods Association

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