Vanilla remains supreme, Armstrong says, but the mass-market producers represented by her organization are branching out. At the association’s annual ice cream technology conference in April, producers showcased flavors such as Mexican-spiced chocolate and hot sauce ice cream. Ice cream flavors such as caramel popcorn, coffee-and-doughnuts, cotton candy and peanut butter s’mores also are destined for supermarket shelves.
Though we are in an intense period of flavor experimentation, the desire to go beyond chocolate, vanilla and strawberry dates to the post-World War II era, says Laura B. Weiss, author of “Ice Cream: A Global History.” That’s when Howard Johnson, known for his roadside restaurants, tried to convince Americans to indulge in his famous 28 flavors. Among them: maple walnut, burgundy cherry and fruit salad.
“This was really pretty revolutionary,” Weiss says. “Going beyond chocolate, vanilla and strawberry really began with Howard Johnson.”
Even today’s most exotic-sounding new flavors make sense on some level. Candied sweet potato, a flavor being explored by Parker Products in Ft. Worth, Texas, has its roots in Southern sweet potato pie. Ice cream behemoth Haagen-Dazs recently launched tomato ice cream in Japan, as well as a carrot-orange flavor. And why not, says Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
“A lot of vegetables have a very sweet flavor,” she says. “Like corn. Even when you make it salty, it’s still sweet and milky.”
Producers also are tackling whiskey, beer and other alcohols in new ways. Jeni’s Splendid makes a cherrywood smoked porter ice cream studded with rosemary-sprinkled bar nuts. High Road Craft Ice Cream in Marietta, Georgia, makes a bourbon-burnt sugar flavor. “Ice cream is a great canvas for evoking those flavors and speaking to those profiles, but also having fun with the cocktails, the old fashioneds and the Manhattans,” says Coolhaus’ Case. “And I don’t have to card people. It’s a food.”