- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Nine-year-old Nia Huie steps up to the counter at Simple Pleasures Ice Cafe in Bowie with the assurance of someone who knows exactly what she wants. Today, it’s banana pudding. “Weren’t you in here yesterday?” asks owner Santamaria Perrin with a smile, scooping out a generous helping of creamy homemade ice cream. “Seems like I remember you coming in here with your mother.”

Yes, Nia was here yesterday with her mother. Today she is with her father. But that’s not unusual: Many customers stop in for Mrs. Perrin’s homemade ice cream and friendly conversation more than once a week.

Throughout the Washington area, ice cream lovers who are tired of the fare at the familiar chains crowd into the shops that make and sell their own.

They want a bit of the unexpected, flavors like black walnut or honeydew melon. They want a sense of craft and a creator’s pride. They also want nostalgia, something that can’t be served up in a dish or cone.

That may account for the popularity of places like Simple Pleasures, or Gifford’s in Bethesda, which has been making and serving ice cream on the same street since 1938 — or like the University of Maryland’s University Dairy in College Park, which even keeps its own Holsteins (and how many ice cream shops can make that claim?).

Everyone loves ice cream. The United States leads the world in annual production of ice cream, with 1.6 billion gallons produced in 2001, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. That translates into 23 quarts of ice cream produced per person.

Ordering up a small portion of those 23 quarts at the Simple Pleasures counter is Nia’s father, Dennis, from Kettering, Md., who has commandeered a double scoop of ice cream for himself.

“I guess you’d have to say I’m an ice cream lover,” Mr. Huie says with a grin. He and his daughter have visited most of the ice cream shops in the metropolitan area — she recommends the mango ice cream at Thomas Sweet in Georgetown — but they always come back to Simple Pleasures.

“It’s one of the best,” he says. “Even when it’s cold outside you just want to come in here.”

Marco Polo returned from China with a recipe for something that closely resembled sherbet.


Walk into Simple Pleasures and you might feel that you’ve landed in the middle of a European cafe. Wooden shoes and picture postcards line the walls. The tablecloths are lace. The toppings are from Germany and the desserts — from simple scoops to elaborate sundaes — are served in real Polish pottery.

“Nobody eats out of paper here,” says Mrs. Perrin, whose daughter spent six years in Europe with NATO, as marketing director for the U.S. Department of Defense. “Even if you get it to go, we’ll put it in Italian plastic.”

Simple Pleasures has been open only since October 2000, but already locals breeze in as if they have been coming here for ages.

Mrs. Perrin makes her ice cream, with up to 17 percent butterfat depending on the flavor, in small batches of 20 quarts at a time. She also makes soft serve — real ice cream, not custard, and has hired a pastry chef for other creations.

“It’s really good,” says Eddie Gormley, 16, of Bowie, who stopped in with his whole family one weeknight recently. They all had some ice cream, from dulce de leche (a caramelized ice cream based on a traditional Argentinian dessert) in a waffle cone to butterscotch sundaes to cookies and cream.

“It’s better than Baskin-Robbins,” says Eddie. “My dad had his finished before we’d even walked out the door. We’re definitely going to come here again.”

What makes it better? Some would say it’s the touch of TLC that Mrs. Perrin seems to put in every batch. And ice cream just seems to taste better when it’s served in a real glass or a piece of pottery from Poland.

Often, while Mrs. Perrin is making ice cream in the back of the store, her daughter, Terri Russell, is scouring Europe for toppings, glassware and Polish pottery, which the two also offer for sale.

“So many people were asking us if they could buy it we just decided to offer it for sale,” says Mrs. Perrin with a chuckle.

The Italian Catherine de Medici introduced frozen desserts to France in 1553 when she became the wife of Henry II.

Among the more popular offerings at Simple Pleasures are parties where children learn to make ice cream. If you have your own idea for an ice cream flavor, Mrs. Perrin even takes requests.

“One woman wanted butter brickle, and it was so good we kept it on the menu,” says Mrs. Perrin. “People like to have the flavors that they remember as kids.”

Converts come quickly and often, as much for the friendly ambience established by Mrs. Perrin as they do for the ice cream itself. Of course, you can’t beat a “spaghetti sundae” with toppings imported from Europe, or a double scoop of stracciatella, an Italian-style confection of vanilla with chocolate flecks.

Among the letters and testimonials mounted on the wall is one written in painstaking cursive by an elementary school student named Chelsea. She praises the ice cream at some length before going on to announce that she’s figured out the secret of the store’s success.

“I know why you call it Simple Pleasures,” she writes. “Because it’s simple to make people happy.”

George Washington spent about $200 on ice cream in the summer of 1790; Thomas Jefferson had his own recipe for vanilla ice cream.

At Gifford’s in Bethesda, they’vebeen making people happy since 1938. Of course, the business has been through some changes since then:a succession of buildings, a parade of new owners, and even a dry period during the mid-1980s when the shops were closed and the recipes were sold.

But Gifford’s is back with a bang, along with its flagship flavor — Swiss chocolate, which can have even jaded Bethesdans waxing nostalgic forthe old days and in some cases, even jumping up and down.

“There’s such a rich tradition here,” says owner Marcelo Ramagem, “People feel like this is their own little bit of Washington.”

He began working for Gifford’s in 1989, starting out as a scooper under the previous owner. He worked his way to store manager and later convinced his father to give him the financial backing he needed when the owner was ready to sell the business in the summer of 1999.

All of Gifford’s ice cream is made at its Rockville warehouse, in small batches, under the close supervision of Mr. Ramagem. He’s in the process of testing several new flavors, but the backbone of the organization has been, and always will be, according to Mr. Ramagem, the old favorites.

Baltimore milk dealer Jacob Fussell established the first ice cream factory in America in 1851.

“Our ice cream means quality,” says Mr. Ramagem proudly. “We use a 17-percent butterfat mix and try to avoid premade ingredients. You have to be a real perfectionist to make good ice cream.”

U.S. Government standards for regular ice cream mandate not less than 10 percent butterfat. So-called super premium national brands, such as Haagen Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s, contain from 16 to 18 percent butterfat.

That range suits Gifford’s just fine.

“I love their black-and-white milkshakes,” says Jake Levine-Sisson, 16, from Bethesda. The vanilla milkshake-chocolate ice cream combo (or its twin, the chocolate milkshake with vanilla ice cream) is not on the menu, Jake says, “but they’ll make it for you.”

The American soda fountain shop and the profession of the “soda jerk” emerged In 1874 with the invention of the ice cream soda.

In fact, Jake says he now avoids the other Bethesda ice cream stores just to come to Gifford’s.

“It’s more traditional,” he says. “They’ve even got an old menu on the wall. And they don’t play annoying music.”

So what makes the ice cream from Gifford’s taste different from the ice cream from Bob’s Famous (also in Bethesda) or Simple Pleasures or Thomas Sweet? It all starts with the mix from the dairy, before the ice cream is even made.

Ice cream makers like Mrs. Perrin or Gifford’s order their mixes with differing degrees of butterfat. Mrs. Perrin, for example, says she varies the butterfat content depending on the flavor of ice cream she makes — lighter flavors, she feels, are better with a lower butterfat content.

Even the dairy of origin can make a difference in the ice cream’s taste. Simple Pleasures use Cloverland/Green Spring Dairy in Baltimore; Gifford’s uses a dairy in West Virginia.

In the late 1890s, in response to criticism by religious groups over the sinfully rich ice cream sodas consumed on Sundays, ice cream merchants left out the carbonated water. The result was the “Sunday,” which was eventually transformed into the “sundae” to remove any connection with the Sabbath.

At the University of Maryland’s University Dairy, they’ve been serving up their own brand of ice cream since the 1920s, when motorists driving along Route 1 found the dairy cows grazing on the university’s front lawn a familiar sight.

Today the university’s dairy herd of more than 200 milking cows is located in Clarksville, Md., just north of Columbia. With a new state-of-the-art-milking parlor, milking operations are now automated and computerized. University of Maryland cows are fed a specially balanced mix of feed that is designed to produce the sweetest, best tasting and most uniform quality milk. The herd produces about 814 gallons of milk a day.

Once the cows are milked, the results are picked up by a driver for the Land O’ Lakes farmers’ cooperative, who also makes stops at other area farms before taking it to the Cloverland/Green Spring Dairy in Baltimore for processing.

There the university’s milk is mixed with that of other farms. What the ice cream operations at the University of Maryland gets back are bags of ice cream mix, containing milk, cream and sugar to the university’s precise specifications.

From there, graduate student Lisa Smith takes charge. She’s the only person in the entire university system who makes the ice cream.

“I’ve gained lots of weight since I’ve been here,” confesses Miss Smith, who makes the ice cream in small batches of 10 gallons at a time at the University’s Animal and Avian Science Department. When possible, she uses local products as add-ins: Jeppi brand nuts from Baltimore, Serio Bakemark cookies from Jessup for the cookies and cream.

“The best time is when it comes right out of the freezer,” she says.

You can find her results, with flavors like Dutch apple and devil’s food, resting alongside familiar standards like vanilla and chocolate in the freezer case at the University Dairy located in the University of Maryland’s Visitor Center on Route 1.

“I’ve tried them all,” says scooper Tahajai Hobbes, who has been working at University Dairy for four years. “But I think my favorite is Chocolate Crunch.”

@Text.centered: Truly, working at University Dairy can be dangerous. The chocolate milkshakes are made with chocolate syrup and chocolate ice cream, a rarity these days, when many vendors make “chocolate” milkshakes with vanilla ice cream unless asked specifically for chocolate. The ice cream is thick, rich, and creamy. And ingredients like chocolate chips, pecans, and in the summer, peaches, can easily push you over the edge.

“Once in a while I buy a half gallon of that butter pecan for my freezer,” says Dairy cashier Mary Perkins. “It’s a special treat.”

So special that even during Washington’s recent cold, rainy stretch, people were still walking away from the counter laden with scoops, sundaes, and milkshakes.

People like F.C. Stark, who first came to University Dairy in 1958, when he was the one behind the counter. Now, he’s stopped in with his wife for lunch and an egg nog milkshake.

“It’s still fantastic,” he says, taking a mighty sip. “It just doesn’t get no better than this.”

Assorted ice cream facts drawn from the Web site of the International Dairy Foods Association (www.idfa.org/facts/icmonth/page7.cfm).

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