John Harrison may not have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he's attached to a gold-plated one now.
The spoon, a two-foot knife, and a pocket thermometer are the tools of his trade as an ice-cream taster.
So adept is he at what he does that the American Tasting Institute named Mr. Harrison Master Taster of the Year in 1997. In recognition of his considerable skill, his employer, Edy's/ Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, has insured his taste buds for $1 million.
Tools of the taster's trade
As for those "tools"...
Well, the gold-plated spoon provides an unadulterated tasting experience, free of the aftertaste Harrison associates with wood or plastic.
The elongated ice-cream knife is for cutting open packages to expose a clean cross section. This gives him a good look at the distribution of nuts, chips, fruit, and other "inclusions."
"Too many pecans in butter pecan [ice cream] is just as wrong as not enough," he explains.
And the thermometer - that helps him eat the ice cream at a warmer temperature than most people do, in order to avoid numbing his olfactory capacities.
"At home, most people consume ice cream at about 5 degrees above zero F.," he notes. "At work, I'm tasting at anywhere from 10 to 12 degrees above zero because I want to maximize all the flavor."
In particular, he's looking to detect the ice cream's "bouquet," what he calls "that top note," which wafts up into the nose. Getting the ice cream to the optimum temperature, therefore, is the most time-consuming part of his job.
It's the key to capturing the incremental differences in even the most common of all flavors: vanilla.
"The flower that grows on the vanilla bean vine is the orchid, so when you're describing pure vanilla it is sweet, pungent, aromatic, floral," he says. "When you add that to fresh cream and sugar, whoa! No wonder it's so good and the most popular flavor at 30 percent of the total [sales] volume."
Harrison, unlike the folks who buy the brand he works for, doesn't ingest what he samples.
"You don't have to swallow to taste," he observes. "In fact, it's an occupational hazard. If I swallowed everything I tasted, I would get full and not be discerning of those 'top notes.' "
Consequently, he has developed a technique he describes as the three S's, or swirl, smack, and spit, for what happens on his palate.
To get a full picture of a day's production at Edy's headquarters plant in Oakland, Calif., he arrives at 7:30 a.m. and immediately begins tasting ice cream manufactured by the night shift.
Samples from the beginning, middle, and end of every flavor run are delivered to the tasting laboratory. With 20 flavors currently in production, he tests 60 samples a day, which takes about four hours, if all goes well.
And if it doesn't? Then sleuthing out where things went wrong can require eight to 10 hours. The affected pallets of ice cream must be set aside and given away.
"Last year we donated half a million gallons [to food banks] before it got out of the plant," Harrison says.
Though usually perfectly edible, the errant batches are misformulated and, therefore, not what regular customers expect.
"The whole key behind my work, really, is consistency," Harrison says. "My job is quality control, quality assurance. We'd be fools if we changed or adjusted those formulas, because, as a national company, we have millions of consumers buying those flavors."
Of course, sales figures are closely watched for signs of what's hot and what's not. Harrison not only oversees the taste-testing in five plants, but also is involved in training and product development.
One traditional flavor that Harrison believes is poised to regain lost ground is strawberry.
It fell out of the Top 5, he speculates, because the industry went too far and pasteurized strawberries "to a fault. It tasted like jam and lost that good fresh strawberry note [flavor]. But with the help of some new technology, we're coming back with some good strawberry products."
Although the research and development department comes up with most of the new flavors, Edy's occasionally looks to the public for inspiration. Several years ago, in a California contest tied to the state's sesquicentennial, the winning entry was submitted by a schoolgirl, who suggested Gold Miner's Dream - with chocolate and vanilla ice cream, plus chocolate, caramel, and toffee nuggets - as a flavor. Recently, in a nationwide contest, the company sought ideas for its "homemade" line.
Edy's has grown tremendously during Harrison's 19 years as an employee, going from $10 million in annual sales to $1.3 billion last year.
A cool career
He brings to the job a rich heritage in the ice-cream business. His great-grandfather made ice cream and candy in New York, his grandfather started Tennessee's first dairy co-op, and his father owned a dairy-ingredient company in Atlanta. Much of his own early training came as a college student, working in his uncle's Atlanta ice-cream factory.
After studying chemistry, he moved on to the Borden Co., and then joined his father's business, working as a formulator and troubleshooter in the US, Canada, and Latin America.
Harrison says being an ice-cream taster is, to some degree, a lifestyle decision. Pungent foods can affect his tasting. During the week, for instance, he avoids eating onions or garlic, and he doesn't smoke or drink. On Friday nights, however, he might kick back and order a pepperoni pizza.
As for his own ice-cream eating, Harrison has become quite fond of mint chocolate chip, a flavor he didn't like when initially sampling it at the end of tasting runs.
"Then one day I took some home and had it after dinner," he says of his conversion. "Oh, marvelous - 12 percent butterfat, triple distilled creme de menthe, semisweet chocolate chips. Man, that will wrap up a meal!"
Chill out with ice cream facts
* Most popular ice cream flavors:
4. Butter Pecan
5. Cookies 'N Cream
7. Chocolate Chip/Mint Chocolate Chip
10. Fudge Marble
* According to "The Guinness Book of World Records," an ice cream parlor in Merida, Venezuela, offers the most flavors: more than 700. Many are made with vegetables, including the best-seller, sweet corn ice cream.
* Howard Johnson's was once famous for offering 28 flavors. Then Baskin-Robbins came along in 1945 and introduced the concept of a flavor for each day of the month, or 31. Each year, the company rotates 100 or so flavors through its freezers, but altogether it has manufactured nearly a thousand flavors, including Baseball Nut, Lemon Custard, and Pink Bubblegum.
* One of the hottest industry trends is co-branding, a strategy in which the products of two manufacturers are fused. Breyer's, for example, incorporates Oreo cookies and Reese's candies into its Ice Cream Parlor line.
* The fastest-growing new flavor in the history of the ice cream industry was Cookies 'N Cream, introduced in 1983.
* Grocery stores account for half of all US ice cream sales. Shops that sell ice cream by the scoop, convenience stores, and other retail and food-service outlets sell the remaining half.
* According to supermarket sales figures, regular ice cream is the runaway winner among frozen desserts. Regular ice cream accounts for a 77 percent share of total sales, followed by reduced and no-fat ice creams (13 percent), frozen yogurt (5 percent), sherbet (3.5 percent), and sorbet (0.5 percent). All other choices account for 0.8 percent.
* 80 percent of the world's vanilla beans are grown in Madagascar.
* Ice cream sales on Sunday exceed those of any other day.
* On average, each American annually consumes 23.2 quarts of ice cream and other commercially produced frozen dairy products.
* The leading ice-cream-loving US cities, based on per capita purchases, are Portland, Ore.; St. Louis; and Omaha, Neb.
* Three-quarters of all ice cream is sold in half-gallon containers, but pints are the fastest-growing size.
Sources: International Dairy Foods Association, ACNielsen Scan Trak, Edy's Grand Ice Cream.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor