When ice cream became a frozen dairy dessert

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We love ice cream in my house. When I was a kid, I won a Sealtest Dairy contest and a coupon book for 26 half-gallons of ice cream — supposedly about a year’s supply. I shared a half-gallon of ice cream with my grandmother every Sunday and it was gone within six months. My wife and I fell in love over a half-gallon of Breyers mint chocolate chip about 50 years ago. Since then, Breyers became our brand of choice.

Breyers was born in Philadelphia after the Civil War. We recited the Pledge of Purity guarantee every night before we opened the container. A portrait of both of us digging into the carton with our spoons hangs over our mantelpiece in the dining room (Well, maybe not, but it should).

While others opted for new flavors and trendy brands, we stuck with Breyers with the mint leaf on the carton — our north star. We even played games, such as counting the specks of vanilla bean on our spoonfuls of all-natural vanilla. We rejoiced at the simple ingredients — milk, cream, sugar and the pure flavorings. We were proud that the cherries were not just any cherries, but Bing cherries. Not even our rising cholesterol could upset our serene Breyers world. Wasn’t Henry Breyer ever canonized? Well, it must have been an oversight on the part of the church.

Although Breyers actually had been sold to the National Dairy Products Corp. in 1926, we didn’t worry until the corporation began calling itself Kraftco. Until then, I still pictured members of the Breyer family churning our favorite ice cream in the little Southwest Philadelphia factory. And then in 1993, Unilever, a Dutch company, took over our favorite brand.

Tastes change, even in ice cream. Some people began to insist chunks of their favorite candy bar be part of their ice cream. Breyers eventually caved, but still, its original all-natural flavors remained alongside the newer flavors. That is until recent years.

At first, the changes were subtle. The size of the half-gallon began to shrink as prices rose, and today, a “half-gallon” of Breyers is 1.5 quarts. My wife and I aren’t unreasonable people. We were willing to live with smaller containers and higher prices. After all, we no longer dove spoon first into the containers anymore, but disciplined ourselves to eat what I call “controlled portions.” That’s when Unilever became the stereotype of every bad corporation you have ever seen in a Michael Moore movie. It changed the Breyers formula.

Most of the Breyers ice cream one buys today are no longer called “ice cream.” Check the package. Even on some simple flavors, such as Vanilla Fudge Twirl and Butter Pecan, it says “frozen dairy dessert.” Now folks, you may not like the federal government that much, but it does set the standard by which a company earns the right to call its product “ice cream.” By God, that container better have at least 10 percent milk fat in it or buster, you’re in uncharted waters. By calling its product “frozen dairy dessert,” no consumer can protest it doesn’t meet the standard because there is no government standard for “frozen dairy dessert.” It’s whatever a big corporation wants it to be. And what a corporation calls a “frozen dairy dessert” contains stuff, such as corn syrup, whey, mono, diglycerides and a whole lot of gums like tara (my goddaughter is named Tara and I sure don’t want her gum in my ice cream), carob bean and guar gums.

I don’t want to be unfair to Unilever. It is not the only shlock corporation out there masquerading as makers of ice cream. Mostly all of the big commercial brands do it. Even Turkey Hill, which likes you to think of some gentle Amish farmers churning their ice cream products does it (except in their high end brand called Old Philadelphia appropriately enough). But Unilever is using the Breyers name and that counts for something here in this city. You want to muck up an established ice cream, go pick on another brand made in Detroit or Cleveland.

Do yourself a favor sometime. Look up the various products manufactured under the Unilever name. A couple of examples are Vaseline and Clear scalp products. Doesn’t that get your taste buds salivating? But wait, it gets worse. Unilever now owns Ben & Jerry’s.

Now I don’t know about you, but when two gentle hippies sell their product to Unilever, I’m willing to predict the end of the freaking world. Are you telling me Jerry Garcia isn’t doing the samba in his grave over Unilever producing Cherry Garcia? Right now, Unilever is doing all the right things by Ben & Jerry’s. The churns are still humming in Vermont, where the cream produced by cows is free of BHT and a part of the proceeds go to feeding the hungry, freeing the world’s political prisoners and curing every disease known to man.

But I ask you, for how long? How long before the word “frozen dairy dessert” replaces “ice cream” on the label? It’s almost enough to make me wish I were lactose intolerant.

Contact the South Philly Review at editor@southphillyreview.com.

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Jane Kiefer
Jane Kiefer, a seasoned journalist with a rich background in digital media strategies, leads South Philly Review as its Editor-in-Chief. Originally hailing from Seattle, Jane combines her outsider perspective with a profound respect for South Philly's vibrant community, bringing fresh insights and innovative storytelling to the newspaper.