One reporter’s theory.
My relationship with ice cream began in the womb. In the two weeks before I was due, my mother drank a coffee milkshake every day.
She’d had a love affair with coffee ice cream for nearly her whole life. In fourth grade, her class was asked to describe a food in detail, and she wrote an “ode to the coffee ice cream soda,” she told me. By her senior year of high school, she had developed a coffee-ice-cream ritual: she’d walk across the field from school, come in the back door to the empty house, scoop ice cream into a bowl, set up a bookstand, and savor the novel and the ice cream at once. “It was blissful,” she said. “It had this incredible association with leisure and independence, that I was home alone.”
Whether or not those milkshakes reached me through the umbilical cord, I inherited my mom’s attachment to ice cream. A month ago, I had a dream in which I’d been assigned a story on ice cream and dove headfirst into researching and outlining it. You have to be pretty fixated on ice cream to have a dream like that. When I awoke, I mulled over why I was so obsessed, and started investigating whether America’s most popular dessert has this effect on everyone.
“I love ice cream more than most other things in the world,” my cousin, Lauren Gross, told me. “I get deep-seated satisfaction whenever I get to sit in front of my TV-slash-computer with probably an entire carton of Ben & Jerry’s.”
A friend’s younger sister said that for about a decade starting at age 13, she had a pint-a-day habit. “It was never about the gastronomic experience,” she said. “What I want is an amalgam of sugar and fat that hits the exact right sweet spot.”
Lainie Fefferman grew up eating at least one big bowl of ice cream per day, though she’d easily eat two or three bowls if she was sick or in a bad mood. “From the time I could talk, I just wanted to eat ice cream all the time,” she said.
Ice cream isn’t a uniquely American obsession, either. “I can’t think of anything else that crosses cultures quite in the way that ice cream does,” Laura B. Weiss, author of Ice Cream, A Global History, told me. “I can’t. I mean, everywhere.”
Everyone I talked to reached back to childhood memories to explain the roots of their ice cream obsessions. “This is so Freudian, but the truth is, it all began with my mother,” my friend’s pint-a-day sister told me, laughing. Her parents worked a lot, but after dinner, her mother would take the three girls to the bookstore and, on the way back, to Baskin-Robbins.
Ben Sutton, who is “a militant advocate for eating ice cream in cold weather,” lived in early childhood in a Paris apartment right above an ice cream parlor. “That, maybe, was where it was deeply ingrained in me that ice cream was a year-round food. It started in infancy.”
Daniel Mendel worked at his Florida hometown’s beloved ice cream store throughout high school, but said he became enthralled with the stuff years before that, “because of how I felt when I was in the company of my parents when I was in that store with them.” Another friend, Laura Newmark, said, “I really think that there’s something about childhood that is intrinsically linked to the ice cream truck.” Ice cream often conjures memories of family, of safety, of carefree summer afternoons.
But I believe it goes back even further than that: all the way to infancy. I think ice cream is the grown-up version of breast milk, what many of us turn to for the ultimate solace in moments we feel lost or overwhelmed or afraid. It’s milky and fatty and sweet. You lick it and sometimes you bite it.
In 2011, a man named Matt O’Connor started making novelty “Baby Gaga” ice cream out of donated (and screened) breast milk at his pop-up shop Icecreamists, which continually sold out over around eight months. My own therapist told me that, when she’s talking to new mothers about breastfeeding, she offers up melted vanilla Haagen Dazs as an analogy for what breast milk tastes like. Ice cream isn’t just childhood—it’s mommy, disguised enough that we don’t consciously realize what we’re reaching for.
To my surprise and delight, no one I interviewed outright disputed my theory, though some were more on board than others. Laura Weiss erupted in surprised laughter. My cousin was conciliatory: “It’s an interesting theory. I’m not sure. I need to think on it for a while.” But Mendel said he’d “love to sign off on” my theory. Newmark, who has two young children, said, “I think there’s a lot to that.”
My mom, for her part, was open to it. “That’s fascinating. Wow. A form of self-comfort. I think it is very…perceptive,” she said. I offered that perhaps all those coffee milkshakes were a way of breastfeeding herself on the eve of becoming a mother—of crawling back into the womb, temporarily, in the face of this huge transition. My wonderful mom listened patiently as I presented this analysis, but countered that she felt no sadness about giving birth. “What was wonderful about being pregnant was really what it was leading to,” she said. “I was so ready and so eager.”
Then, though, she said: “Okay. I do have something to add that will very much support your theory.” She told me that when she would drive me back to college after a break, she would get a coffee milkshake to drink on the way home. “It was a little sad to say goodbye, and it was something a little sweet that had sweet associations that would help the transition,” she said. Ice cream has, for her, always been a transitional food, starting back when it helped her move from a day at high school to an evening back at home.
And, of course, from being pregnant to being a mom. Her own words notwithstanding, I can’t imagine the feelings around giving birth—from complete merger to separation—aren’t bittersweet at best. I haven’t yet been pregnant myself, but I can imagine the craving for infantile comforts on the precipice of such an enormous change. And there for my mom, helping to ease the way, was ice cream.