Gus Rancatore in the freezer at his Toscanini’s Ice Cream shop in Central Square. (Photo: Alex Mavradis)

Gus Rancatore in the freezer at his Toscanini’s Ice Cream shop in Central Square. (Photo: Alex Mavradis)

Many people have heard New England consumes the most ice cream per capita or that this area consumes the most ice cream in the country. If you ask where that statistic came from, no one knows.

“People constantly point that out to us,” says Ray Ford, owner of Christina’s Ice Cream in Inman Square, although no organization requests his yearly volume of sales.

“I think it’s true, but there’s little evidence to support it. In all the years I’ve been in the ice cream business, no one’s ever asked me,” says Gus Rancatore, owner of Toscanini’s in Central and Harvard Square. “I’ve never received a survey.”

Bob Bryson, of the New England Ice Cream Restaurant Association said although he has heard that New England has the highest ice cream consumption, it was “dethroned” recently —although he was unable to give further information.

 

The International Dairy Foods Association does not keep track of ice cream sold in parlors, but has data from 2001 about supermarket ice cream sales. Des Moines, Iowa, actually has the highest sales in the country, said Katie Koppenhoefer, of the International Dairy Foods Association, although she has heard of New England having the highest sales. Once again, there’s no source.

But how is it New Englanders consume so much ice cream?

“I think one of the reasons is that Boston has a lot of private colleges. Private college students have enough discretionary income to go out for real good ice cream, but they can’t afford to go out to a real good restaurant every night,” Rancatore explains. “If you’re working with someone on a project or if you want to get to know them better, you can say, ‘Why don’t I meet you at Toscanini’s and you can tell me what you think of “War and Peace.”’”

Although ice cream stores, along with coffee houses, are often used as a social premise, they also give people time to be alone to work, study or read.

“We had the cream and the ice. It’s part of the culture,” points out Steve Herrell, the founder of Herrell’s Ice Cream, which has a location in Harvard Square. Before electricity, New Englanders were able to enjoy ice cream longer than Southerners because of their easy access to ice (which is still true today) and the abundance of dairy farms (less so today). Also, “You don’t just eat ice cream to cool off … it’s a side benefit. [In winter], the hot fudge is still hot.”

Ford has another theory:

“I think much of it has to do with the fact that winters are so rough, so then when winter ends, people appreciate it,” he says. “From what I’ve noticed, the ice cream stores in Hawaii and Florida are never particularly busy. The ice cream is particularly good in the Boston area, though.”

The local ice cream shops are fairly friendly and help each other.

“If we run out of spoons on Saturday, we borrow them from one of our competitors. If they run out of napkins on Sunday,” Toscanini’s provides them, Rancatore says. “If anyone runs out of quarters, everyone helps each other.”

The bigger threat to the local industry is the introduction of the larger national chains such as the Arizona-based Cold Stone Creamery or the Texas-based Marble Slab. Both are known for offering “mix-ins,” in which a server mixes in toppings to the ice cream.

“If anyone in food ever invents things, [Herrell] invented the mix-in,” Rancatore says. “What’s certainly going on in [the area] is you get smaller portions of very good ice cream. In the suburbs, you get bigger portions of ice cream that’s not as good. With these new stores, you get medium-to-mediocre ice cream with a lot of sizzle or Japanese steakhouse shenanigans.”

Herrell, of course, has also noticed the encroaching chains and their use of what he calls the “smoosh-in.”

“They think it’s new. We’ve been doing that for a long time in New England. Dairy Queen introduced the Blizzard after I introduced it at Steve’s,” he said, referring to his original location in Somerville. “The McFlurry, Cyclone … I don’t know why they have to call it storms. [We called it] the mix-in initially, now smoosh-in.”

The local stores are constantly changing their flavors, and regionalism abounds.

 “In most parts of the country, coffee is not on the list of 10 most popular flavors,” Rancatore said. “In New England, it’s fourth, and in Rhode Island it might be first or second.”

“In Texas, we had a flavor from Texas called Mexican vanilla. All Texans know that it’s an alternative and cheaper vanilla extract. We weren’t selling much of it,” Rancatore said. “This high school kid said, ‘Why don’t you call it “cake batter,” because it tastes like an American cake mix.’ That flavor we know as Cake Batter has become more broadly popular.”

It can be hard for an ice cream eater to move from one region to another, not just because of changes in quantity, quality or names, but because the basic terminology of ice cream changes as well.

“The terms are quite different,” Herrell points out, and his namesake company’s Web site even includes a dictionary of ice cream terms. One of the most confused is for the blended ice cream drink, which ranges from “cabinet” to “milkshake” to “frappe.”

“By the time you get to Worcester, they’re called milkshakes again,” Herrell says.

What’s next from the freezer?

“Emerald City is one of our newer flavors: Peppermint base with cut-up Andes and green sprinkles added to it,” Herrell says, then recites from a folder of “experiments in progress”:

“Butternut: Has squash in it. When I bake squash, I load it up with butter and brown sugar or maple syrup. The real thing is, it’s an excuse to have a lot of butter and maple. Reduce the squash and increase the butter!”

Cookie Combustion is another flavor Herrell is developing. “When you make cookies and cream, there’s two schools of thought: One, that you should pulverize the cookies and make a uniformly dark ice cream. Another is that you break up the cookie, so it’s vanilla with bits of cookie. This combines both.”

It’s difficult for a small ice cream store to manage 136 flavors, and often customers will come in and find the flavor they want isn’t available. At Herrell’s, they keep a flavor request list where the customer’s phone number is stored, so when the flavor is available, they’ll be notified.