We were minding our own business the other day, licking a vanilla ice cream cone and turning the pages of a magazine -- two of our favorite summertime pleasures. Every skilled reader-licker knows how to use the pages of a magazine to shade a cone. Keeping our magazine-cum-awning facing west -- the time was about 2:35 on a sunny afternoon -- we achieved that contented state requiring only Paul Desmond's solo on "Summertime" to make life seem like a screenplay when something rather distressing happened.
We found ourselves reading about vanilla ice cream.
It is against our code to disclose the brand of vanilla ice cream we were licking, but we feel free to name the magazine -- Science 81. At first we were charmed by the coincidence, and the author, Terry Dunkle, did write so well! Here is how he described what we were, at the very moment, experiencing: "The ice cream felt incredibly cold on the teeth. . . . The vanilla came up slowly at first, rising exponentially, until the whole mouth belonged to it, was filled as a cave with warm vapors. Rapidly it faded, preparing me for a fresh surprise."
Alas, Dunkle the lyric poet soon gave way to Dunkle in a laboratory smock, cramming that scoop of vanilla into a test tube as it were.
While our cone dripped, we unwillingly learned how many pounds of feed a half-ton cow must eat to produce a quart of ice cream (answer: 30), and how many "fatty acids" are contained in that cream (answer: 150).
Did all this make our tongue leap again to the cone? Answer: No.
Nor did the listing of ingredients from a supermarket ice cream carton: "milk fat and nonfat milk, sugar, corn sweetener, whey, mono- and diglycerides, guar gum, Polycorbate 80, carrageenin, and natural and artificial flavor."
Could Polycorbate 80 possibly be what we have been so enjoying?
A couple of ice-creamless days later, just when we had begun to forget all about the carrageenin and guar gum in our summer dessert, we cautiously tested a chocolate ice cream cone, opening up our magazine of the moment to the east. The time was 11:12, and the magazine was Consumer Reports. Again we found our palate being confused by information -- this time a rating of vanilla and chocolate ice creams under the heading, "Here's the scoop. . . ."
Our tongue went dry, then recoiled from the cone as our eyes registered words like "stabilizers" and "emulsifiers" and worst of all, "calories."
Both magazines were being helpful, telling us everything we always wanted to know about ice cream. Why didn't we want to know it?
Scientific data -- "the cold facts," as Science 81 put it -- was being made available to us, and we preferred to stay with the poetry, the romance if you will, of ice cream. At first our reflex was guilt. What kind of pre19 th-century pesons were we anyway, sticking our sentimental heads in a pile of jimmies, so to speak -- refusing to look at ice cream through the microscope?
But then something in us, angry and frustrated (and dripping with melted chocolate ice cream), argued back.
Does a chemist's formula -- a listing of ingredients with appropriate percentages -- really tell us everything about ice cream?
Does a chart of half notes and quarter notes of various tonal vibrations sum up Bach's "Brandenburg" Concertos?
Do the statistics of the Kinsey report of the Hite report form an adequate answer to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's question, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. . . ."?
The sciences are marvelously reductive. But if we end up only with air and ice crystals or decibels or Masters and Johnson nerve-readings, what do we have? A travesty of ice cream, music, and human affections.
Poetry can't describe everything, any more than a lab report. But no reality will be complete without the poet's testimony.
It was a poet, and a hard-headed insurance executive, Wallace Stevens, who wrote: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream."
When it comes to really good vanilla ice cream -- and other blessings too -- a certain royal awe, we've decided, is the approach we want.