My grandmother introduced me to the joy of ice cream and I’ve passed that reverence down to my children. There are photos of them eating ice cream at every age and stage of life from toddler through teen. One of my favorites is my older daughter eating her first ice cream cone on her first birthday. Her rosy cheeks are coated with melted vanilla ice cream and she’s sporting a broad, baby-toothed grin. It’s the same look of pure joy I remember on my grandmother as she ate a Kimball’s Special the first time she took me to the famous ice cream destination.
I have ice cream in my blood. It comes from my father’s side of the family, The Smiths. Ice cream is a religion for the New England Smith clan. A miraculous culinary creation providing compelling evidence of God’s existence. Ice cream, for me, is a form of worship more authentic than dressing up on Sunday morning to sit in a haunted building. Eating ice cream is a ritual that engages all five senses in a celebration of being alive.
The local ice cream stands around home, meaning within a ten mile radius of North Leominster, were ordinary outings for my grandmother. A weekly trip for ice cream was as much a part of life as going to the bank or the grocery store. Ice cream was sustenance, like milk or bread. It’s one of the items, like batteries, eggs, and ice melt, every New Englander should have on hand before a snow storm.
Eating ice cream was routine for my grandmother, but an excursion to Kimball’s carried the significance of a pilgrimage. I’m talking about the original Kimball Farm in Westford, established back in 1939. This was long before they expanded into other towns. To Grammy, Kimball’s was the Holy Land. As soon as I was old enough to accompany her, Grammy introduced me to this rite of passage.
The day of our journey, Grammy refrained from eating. This wasn’t a purification practice, but rather an assurance of ample room in her stomach. An empty stomach was a prerequisite for consuming a massive Kimball’s Special. (It was also, I suspect, justification for the way she effortlessly plowed through the obscene portion of ice cream!).
The drive from Leominster to Westford was a slice of quaint New England countryside. We didn’t take the highway, but rather the winding back roads. Patches of woods opened into rolling green meadows framed by stone walls. Cows grazed complacently in rocky fields. I took in the scenery as Grammy navigated her way through Lunenburg, Townsend, and Littleton.
Grammy was a seasoned driver and it was apparent in the way she hugged the curves of the winding country roads on our mission to reach Kimball’s. I held on to my seat and pointed out farm animals grazing in pastures as quickly as we whizzed past them. My grandfather slept through both my incessant chatter and my grandmother’s hairpin turns. His ability to doze off instantaneously and commence snoring with the ferocity of a jackhammer is an enduring Smith family legend.
When we finally arrived at our destination, I gazed in awe at the lifelike cow statue that remains a Kimball’s icon. Grammy maneuvered the Buick into a parking space and hustled us out of the car as she turned off the ignition. We took our places in line with our fellow ice cream worshipers and busied ourselves with selecting flavors from the extensive menu. It was an overwhelming task for a five year old.
Grammy, of course already knew what she wanted. She’d been talking for days about her Kimball’s Special. Which three flavors would receive the honor of carrying the toppings remained to be determined, however. Flavor combinations were pondered, with consideration for whether they might clash with the toppings. The important decisions had been made before we reached the window.
We waited in eager anticipation while the lady at the window went to scoop up our orders. My eyes lit up as she returned with my technicolor ice cream cone. My grandfather reached with gusto for his hot fudge sundae. Grammy looked like a child on Christmas morning as she slid both hands reverently under the cardboard dish and lifted it off the counter.
A Kimball’s Special, still on the menu today, is basically a banana split without the nuisance of a banana taking up precious ice cream real estate in the dish. The mountains of ice cream in Grammy’s dish dripped with hot fudge, butterscotch, strawberries, and pineapple. A cloud of whipped cream hovered above the frozen landscape. She carried it back to the car excitedly as onlookers marveled at the mammoth proportions of her sundae.
The Kimball’s feast was our supper for the day. The mere thought of an evening meal after so much ice cream was unbearable. The drive home was more relaxed. My grandmother took the same back roads home but at a more leisurely pace, since she was on the brink of a sugar coma. My usual chatter was subdued for the same reason. My grandfather snored loud as ever in the seat beside me-a welcome annoyance which kept Grammy alert enough to drive us home.