Ice cream that's put out to pasture
WATERBURY, VT. — On a hill that overlooks a gravel parking lot, high above the stainless-steel drums that hold thousands of gallons of milk, cream, and sugar, sits a cozy cemetery plot shaded by a stand of trees. In it are more than two dozen headstones with the names of the dearly (and not-so-dearly) departed. Hundreds of people come each year to pay their respects.
For many visitors, those laid to rest here hold sweet memories. And minty ones. And chocolatey ones.
Welcome to Ben & Jerry's flavor graveyard. Each year, the Vermont company creates as many as 12 new flavors. It's what customers have come to expect since Cherry Garcia was introduced to the world in 1987. But for every Neapolitan Dynamite and Vermonty Python that gets added to the lineup, a Lemon Peppermint Carob Chip or Ice Tea with Ginseng must be retired.
In honor of Sunday's National Ice Cream Day, which President Reagan created in 1984 by calling on citizens to mark the occasion with "appropriate ceremonies and activities," we journeyed to the site where Ben & Jerry's flavors – both the delectable and dubious – are, ahem, cream-ated.
Near the factory, tucked into Vermont's verdant Green Mountains, which produces 200,000 pints a day (and hosts as many as 2,500 visitors), are 28 emblematic gravestones. They stand in for the more than 400 flavors that have been banished since Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield – the self-proclaimed fattest, slowest kids in their seventh-grade gym class – first began making ice cream in 1978. (A more comprehensive memorial can be found at benjerry.com/ graveyard.)
Patchy grass sprouts between tracks worn bare by the visitors who have come to mourn the passing of a favorite flavor, or simply enjoy the whimsically macabre spectacle of a cemetery dedicated to ice cream.
"Some people will leave flowers," says Tour Manager Chris Wilkins. "It's kind of scary."
To the left lies "Miz Jelena's Sweet Potato Pie" (1992-1993). "One potato, two potato, Sweet Potato Pie," the slim, slate-gray marker reads. "No one could appreciate it, So we had to let it die."
Not far away is "Urban Jumble," overloaded even by Ben & Jerry's standards, with chocolate and coconut ice creams, white- and dark-chocolate chunks, pecans, and roasted almonds.
Of course, there are the flavors that never made it out of the test kitchen. Apparently, people either loved or hated Chips and Dip – ranch ice cream with potato chips. "I personally didn't like it because it was too savory," says research chef John Shaffer. "It was one of those things that crossed the line."
It's a simple, by-the-numbers process, explains Mr. Shaffer. In order to make room for, say, six new flavors, the six slowest sellers must be abandoned. Those abandoned include Holy Cannoli, Honey Apple Raisin Chocolate Cookie, and Sugar Plum.
The graveyard originated with the Ben & Jerry's website in 1995. Ground was broken on the physical plots in 1997. It's been moved once. And the tombstones are taken down in the winter around the first snow and replaced once the ground has dried.
In her new book, "Ice Cream: The Delicious History," Marilyn Powell identifies another essential ingredient besides milk, cream, and sugar: "What people are buying, in addition to the ice cream, is nostalgia ... for a past when milk was pure, cows were healthy, and life was guileless," she writes.
On a recent Thursday, so scorching it threatens even the frostiest of cones, this nostalgia is evident. Visitors in a steady trickle hike up the hill to pay their respects, lamenting the loss of Dastardly Mash and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Dough.
Breaking away from her family, one little girl, in a bright pink shirt and dark curls, peers behind a stone, wondering aloud: "Why can't there be ice cream behind here?"
He comes from a long line of dairy men. At Ben & Jerry's, he's considered the ultimate taster – they call him their secret weapon. His business card reads "Ice Cream Scientician." "I have good taste buds," says Derek Spors, who specializes in the science behind ice-cream flavors.
Mr. Spors majored in food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where "sensory work" is part of the curriculum. He started working at Ben & Jerry's straight out of college.
"It's not about whether you like something or not," says Spors, who finished in the Top 10 in the national Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest in 1999. What Spors's taste buds can do is so much more complex. They can distinguish between a grain-fed and grass-fed cow – by its milk. Or, when he's out to dinner with friends, his taste buds can tell him that, regardless of what others may think, there's nothing "special" in the butter; it's actually rancid.
And how does it feel to have one of your creations retired? Spors and his colleagues are pragmatists. To make room for the new, the old must be let go. "I don't lose sleep over it," he says.