I’ve eaten a lot of ice cream in my life. Scoops, shakes, flurries, freezes, parfaits and sundaes – I’ve had ‘em all. From Cherry Garcia to Quarterback Crunch, endless slices of Jubilee Rolls and arsenals of rocket pops, I’ve spent a good portion of my life consuming ice cream and frozen yogurt in all forms, including gelato and iced milk, even eating soy ice cream in a regrettable moment of existential doubt. But I’ve never felt satisfied. These bottomless bowls, these countless cones – all filled with flavors of someone else’s choosing. When would it be my time? When could I choose what I want? When can I scream for my ice cream?
My time to scream is now. Tom Arnold, owner of Arnie’s Place in Concord, has offered to make my ice cream dream come true. “We’ll let you get your own flavor on the menu,” Tom tells me, “but you’re gonna have to work for it.”
I arrive on a humid Friday morning before 7 AM, and Tom meets me at the door, a tray of corn bread in one hand and a bin of potatoes in the other. He hands me a uniform shirt, and we get to work. “I start the day behind and I go home behind,” Tom says as he pulls out trays of massive pork shoulders from the smoker, “but I love it. It looks like work but isn’t.” Based on how much I’m already sweating, this seems a lot like work, but I’ve got ice cream on my mind, so I do whatever Tom tells me.
Tom leads me to the counter where seven seasoned pork butts sit cooling. “Hold on,” he says as he zooms off, returning with two cups. “You really should do this job with a cold beer – it just seems right,” giving one to me. Tom shows me how to pick apart the meat and toss the fat into the garbage, handing me piece after piece. “Eat it! Pretty amazing, huh?” he asks rhetorically. The meat is hot, tender and delicious. “We smoke about sixty pounds every night for the next day. I like to call this ‘Morning Magic.’”
I can see why. Pulling pounds of smoked pork apart, sharing a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon and chatting about the mysteries of women all before 8 AM could become a lifestyle choice – perhaps not one leading to a career in politics or the priesthood, but a worthy one for sure.
I ask Tom how he learned how to do this. He responds with Zen-like pragmatism, “We know how not to do it – we’re still trying to learn how to do it.” There’s no time to ponder as the morning shift arrives. What’s clear moments into the team’s arrival is how much its members like working here. I start seasoning tomorrow’s pork, rubbing Tom’s secret spice into every raw crevice I can find, and MacKenzie Dalrymple explains she’s being working here for seven seasons. “I started when I was sixteen – just for a little while. But I kept coming back!” she says, running off to continue prepping. Lindsey “Lou” Allsop, an EMT in training and a twelve-year veteran of Arnie’s Place, turns up the classic rock while Mark McManus gets his ice cream machine ready for the morning’s production. Tom never stops moving, explaining the ins and outs of this business to me while reminding his staff about tasks, chiding Mark for his less than punctual arrival.
Over the next two hours I mop the dining room floor, pound chicken breasts, hoist umbrellas, fill registers, cut cornbread and make dish after dish of Kahlua Fudge sauce. This doesn’t feel like work – everyone’s busy, smiling, cracking jokes and getting ready for the day, the first customers expected soon. MacKenzie lets me pick the day’s special (Pulled Pork and Hot Sausage with onion rings, baked beans and corn bread - $9.75 plus tax) and shows me how to make ice cream cakes. Missy Tucker arrives. She’s been working at Arnie’s Place since Clinton’s second term, and although she’s not on the schedule today, she’s come to say hello. Missy’s one of the three current or former Arnie’s Place employees who’ve been married by Tom, here at the restaurant. “I submitted the Justice of the Peace paperwork for him before even asking. I knew he’d do it.” Pulled pork and marriage? What can Tom not do? A few minutes later, as she washes dishes, Lou explains why she’s back after a long hiatus. “It’s Tom –he’s like a second father to a lot of us.”
Before we start on my ice cream plan, MacKenzie needs potato salad. She pulls out a huge steel bowl, and I cut up onions and celery stalks, adding in pounds of boiled red potatoes. I don gloves as I toss cups of heavy duty mayonnaise into the bowl. Mixing this around feels so good I should probably be doing it in a candle-lit room with Roxy Music playing in the background. Tom interrupts my interlude. “Go easy on the celery salt,” he reminds me. Tom tastes it and approves.
It’s 11 AM, and I’ve already had a beer, half a pound of barbeque, fistfuls of Heath Bars, two generous cups of potato salad and about twenty tastes of everything from Almond Butter Crunch to White Chocolate. Is this heaven? Tom appears and leads me to the soft serve machine, showing me how to pull the lever ever so gently, coaxing the swirled treat down onto the cone. I try it myself and make a mess, the soft serve uncoiling all over the cone and my hands. This looks like what a potty-training Smurf might leave on the carpet.
“It’s not what it looks like – it’s what it tastes like!” Tom reminds me as I take a huge bite of my folly. Ally Chase sees me flailing and demonstrates the right way, her wrist moving casually as she creates a massive vanilla tower. Tim Rapp, Arnie’s manager, arrives and shows me his technique. “You have to move with the flow – don’t hesitate,” he says. A perfect swirls rest atop his cone, and I make a mental note to steer clear of this part of the operation.
I’ve spent the better part of a week thinking through ice cream flavor combinations. If sunscreen tasted as good as it smells, I’d use it, but “SPF 30 Vanilla” sounds mildly toxic, so that won’t work. Maybe something truly New England, like a “Moxie Crunch?” As there are only nineteen people in the entire region (fifteen of whom live in Bangor, Maine) who’ve ever finished a can of Moxie, I need to think bigger. How about “The Elvis,” a peanut butter and banana offering? Remembering where Elvis died makes me think otherwise. Or rum raisin and ginger (“Dark and Stormy”) or a coffee, caramel and peanut brittle scoop? I’m not sure “Decadent Diabetes Coffee Surprise” would meet basic dietary standards of decency.
Tom, Mark and I confer and come up with a white base with a chocolate fudge swirl surrounded by heaps of Andes Mint candy pieces. As Lou cranks the classic rock and laments the fact her Zeppelin IV CD just broke, the idea hits me. “Let’s call it ‘Tim’s Minty Mountain Hop!’” Mark, Tom and Lou agree, and a new era in ice cream begins, my dream no longer deferred.
I measure the peppermint and mint flavoring as Mark pours bags of 14% buttermilk liquid into the ice cream machine. As the liquid churns, Mark hands me the Andes candy, and I pour them in, followed by the fudge ”variegate,” a fancy word that means “sugary goo,” as in, “I think this marshmallow variegate will pair nicely with the butter brickle pieces. If my dentist calls, tell him you haven’t seen me.”
We make five huge tubs of Tim’s Minty Mountain Hop and put them in the deep freeze, where they’ll harden for a day or two. After an afternoon break, I return, ready for the evening ice cream rush with Delaney Poirier as my guide. “This is a kiddie cup, that’s a regular and this one’s a large,” she says, pointing and rushing off to take an order. The pace behind the counter is frenetic – Delaney takes orders at one window while Tim tells Lindsey Stevenson to get more Cake Batter from the ice cream walk-in; meanwhile Paul Lovely takes more orders as I try to blend in and pretend to have a clue. I help Delaney, scooping mounds of Peanut Butter Chip, Mint Oreo and Walnut Fudge into cups and cones, adding sprinkles as instructed. I avoid eye contact with the soft serve machine, its silent gaze mocking me with its stainless steel soul of frozen semi-dairy goodness.
“Tim, can you take care of the vanilla soft serve, kiddie size, on a cone?” Delaney says, less of a question than an order. She chuckles a little bit, knowing this won’t end well.
In the quiet woods of Japan, hours outside Tokyo, there live six-inch long venomous hornets that smell fear just before they attack. This soft serve machine is the Giant Japanese Hornet of Arnie’s Place – it senses my fear as I venture forth, cone in hand. Delaney and Paul give patient instruction over my shoulder, but I’m too quick on the lever and the contents pour out with abandon. I try again, my shoulders and elbow tense and stiff. Again, more modern art than kiddie cone. I try one last time and achieve relative success, my cone looking like one in the parking lot of a Driver’s Ed extra help class. After I apply a generous coating of rainbow sprinkles, the child at the window only has hope in her eyes as I hand her the cone. If she only knew.
The lines grow outside for ice cream and food, and as Tim directs traffic, the team hustling back and forth, I give up on the soft serve and stick to the hard stuff, getting scoop after scoop of one of the fifty or so flavors Arnie’s Place offers. Meanwhile my Minty Mountain Hop continues to turn into real ice cream, soon to join the ranks of Arnie’s homemade ice cream, at least for a little while. Earlier Tom told me, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.” As I finally call it a day, the parking lot full, Tom’s loyal employees racing around serving customers as oldies music blares on the speakers, I agree. But I’d gladly take second place. I’ve got Tim’s Minty Mountain Hop to prove it. Dreams do come true, but they just take a little bit of hard work, and maybe a little screaming.