I have begun to dread the times my friends suggest getting ice cream. It’s not just because I need to double check whether I’ve packed Lactaid, it’s that grabbing a cone after dinner has turned into an entire ordeal that sucks the pleasure from what should always be a pleasurable — and simple — activity. There’s always a new place to try, with a line out the door and sometimes down the block. These status ice cream parlors are either too sleek or too whimsical, each takes either their sleekness or their whimsy so seriously as to crush any casual enjoyment of the dessert. Ice cream feels like it’s become only for connoisseurs. Which is why, if we’re going on this post-meal excursion, I’d rather stop at Ben & Jerry’s, or better yet, grab a pint from the corner store.
It used to be that Ben & Jerry’s was the status premium ice cream. As Charlotte Druckman wrote for Eater, the company set the stage for our modern ice cream players, “leverage[ing] populism to charge more for one of the most populist things around, projecting good, clean, homegrown fun in direct opposition to pretentious European airs — all while asking customers to pay the same price.” But now, we are in the world of $10 “ultra premium” pints, and some specialty ice cream costing $99 for a four-pack. Premium (which the FDA defines as any ice cream with between 12 to 14 percent butterfat) is now the middle of the road.
To me, this has worked in Ben & Jerry’s favor. It’s not the “best” as defined by whatever metrics one can use for that — small-batch, artisanal, seasonal, indie, etc. Instead, it’s just really good ice cream. My dad has stocked his freezer with Phish Food since 1997 and guess what? It still slaps! The non-dairy offerings? Probably some of the best out there! You can’t even go wrong with their “regular” flavors like vanilla or cookie dough. You don’t have to overthink it; it will always be good.
There’s also the matter of Ben & Jerry’s activism, which retains a crunchy, earnest flavor in a world full of brands issuing vague and phony political platitudes. There is nothing sleek or subtle about the way the company’s ethos is woven into their branding — they’re blogging about explicitly about Black Lives Matter and actually divesting from Israel-occupied Palestinian territories. This can be hard to square with the fact that Ben & Jerry’s is now owned by Unilever, but if anything, the company has used the acquisition to become more politically active, all under the umbrella of a major global brand. It’s seemingly done the impossible: Go corporate while continuing to live up to the pun-riddled hippie activism Ben & Jerry’s has always purported to practice.
The current status wars — cold wars? — between ice cream brands (Jeni’s vs. Van Leeuwen vs. Salt & Straw, and so on) is in complete opposition to the whole idea of what makes ice cream good. Meanwhile, Ben & Jerry’s isn’t trying to be anything besides what it’s always been: good-ass ice cream. Anything added — be it chocolate covered pretzels or caramel cores or swirls of marshmallow — contributes to that mission. Unlike whatever oregano and hot sauce-flavored concoction that exists to go viral, Ben & Jerry’s lets my mind be blissfully empty as I eat it. And for that I’m forever grateful.