"One trend I noticed is soft-serve flavors stretching beyond chocolate, vanilla, and the occasional raspberry."
I was recently in upstate New York* visiting my family and eating my way through a smorgasbord of central New York summer fare: Hoffmann hot dogs, Basillio-Buda sausages, pork ribs finished with Dinosaur Bar-B-Que Sensuous Slathering Sauce, grilled chicken skewers basted with Salamida's spiedie sauce, Hinerwadel's salt potatoes with a side of melted butter, Terrell's BBQ potato chips, and Grandma Brown's Baked Beans.
Another taste of home I associate with summer is soft-serve ice cream, especially the classic twist, a sweet spire of equal parts chocolate and vanilla ice cream. More often than not these ice cream stands were attached to a miniature golf course, but even when that wasn't the case, a soft-serve cone on a summer evening was always the perfect way to wrap up the day.
And that upstate ice cream tradition continued during my undergraduate years at SUNY Oswego, where the seasonal opening of Bev's Dairy Treat, located right on the shore of Lake Ontario, signaled the end of the spring semester better than any final exam.
My sister Victoria and eight-year-old nephew Jack joined me to seek out some of the local soft-serve offerings. This quick chronicle of the cone isn't meant to be an all-encompassing survey of central New York soft-serve (we only had ice cream at our final stop) but rather an impressionistic tour fueled by the summer spirit of ice cream stands.
ZEMS: Canastota, New York
ZEMS opened in 1999 and is just a few blocks from my childhood home on Delano Avenue. They weren't yet open for the day but I checked out their menu: ice cream, sundaes, milkshakes, Slushies, and Razzies (whose mix-ins included "worms/muck" in addition to the more traditional cookie dough). Growing up I remember a cone's dipping options consisting of chocolate, butterscotch, and raspberry. ZEMS offers the classic trinity in addition to blue raspberry, cherry, cotton candy, toasted coconut, and peanut butter.
North Pole Restaurant
On our way to Cazenovia, we swung by the North Pole Restaurant on Route 5 in Chittenango, birthplace of Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum. In addition to cones, their menu called out shakes, Flurries and sundaes, Slush Puppies, Glaciers, and floats. The soft-serve flavor of the week was peach. We then took a detour at an outdoor flea market followed by a stop at a roadside farmstand on Route 20. We picked up two pints of raspberries and asked where the nearest place for ice cream might be.
That brought us up the road to Troops Scoops (you might have noticed the lack-of-apostrophe theme when it comes to soft-serve ice cream stands). We ordered lunch here (yet another Hoffmann's hot dog for me) and ate outside on their picnic tables. They offered a Black Raspberry soft-serve in addition to chocolate and vanilla.
While we were there a customer ordered a cup of soft-serve. Unless you're getting a soft-serve sundae, I've never understood the cup move. Some people even have their soft-serve cone tipped upside-down into a cup for transportation's sake. But it's always a cone for me. And with soft-serve I especially appreciate the generic plain, or cake, cone. There's something about the way the ice cream presses itself into the crevices and "gills" of the cone, sticking around until that last waxy crunch.
After lunch we made an extended stop in Hamilton, home of Colgate University, where we caught the tail end of the town's Fourth of July parade. Then it was back home, where we swung by Coneheads in Oneida.
Finally, after all these drive-bys it was time to actually eat some ice cream. We saved a popular new spot not too far from my sister's for last—the wildly popular, curiously named, Nicky Doodles.*
One trend I noticed is soft-serve flavors stretching beyond chocolate, vanilla, and the occasional raspberry. Nicky Doodles offers a whole 64-count Crayon box of flavors, from Almond to White Chocolate, with stops at Cantaloupe, Cinnamon, Kiwi, Malted Milk, Pear, Tutti Frutti, and Watermelon in between. They achieve this by mixing in a flavoring syrup to the vanilla soft-serve base. I wasn't itching to try any of these, even my darling Malted Milk. Tweaking a classic to that extreme veered into Frankenstein's monster territory for me.
I stuck with the classic twist, ordering a medium, and requesting a roll through the nut topping. The medium was more like a large, and a large twist cone is always too much to handle with any grace. Sometimes when you order "nuts" you get something that's more like a combo crunch—a mix of peanuts, candied nuts, and sprinkles (sorry, like soda vs. pop, I grew up as a sprinkles, not jimmies, kind of guy)—but here they were simple chopped peanuts.
As soon as the cone crosses the counter the countdown to full meltdown begins and the balance of working your way down the swirling soft-serve while simultaneously maintaining the melting moat around the base of the cone is on. And, trust me, one napkin is never enough.
One item on the menu that helped me forgive the nonsensical name of the ice cream outpost was a sundae that proudly incorporated a shot of local maple syrup, harvested by the local F.F.A. at the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill High School. It was a cool mix of celebrating all things local in a most unexpected setting.
At the end of the day my sister and I were still debating the definition of "twist." I say twist refers to a combination flavor, like the classic vanilla-chocolate. She thinks it applies to any soft-serve ice cream due to the "twist" shape that comes out of the machine. Thoughts?
ZEMS Ice Cream
North Pole Restaurant
620 East Genesee Street, Chittenango New York 13037 (map)
6960 Route 20, Bouckville NY 13310 (map)
Coneheads Richard Behr
Route 365A & Stevens Street, Oneida New York 13421
About the author: Brad Thomas Parsons is a Brooklyn-based writer who has interviewed many of the food world's biggest names, including David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Danny Meyer, Ina Garten, Jamie Oliver, Paula Deen, and Giada De Laurentiis, among others. He is currently at work on his first book, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails and Recipes.