By HOLLY JENNINGS | August 21,2007
Creamy and delicious, cooling, nice soft texture, melts right in your mouth ...
That is how Vermonters in Rutland, Addison, Washington and Windsor counties described one of their favorite summer treats - the creemee. In a world of standardization and chain-everything, it's easy to fall in love with Vermont creemees and the stands that serve them. I certainly did when I had my first creemee experience two years ago.
But what is a creemee exactly? This summer I set out on a four-county creemee field trip to unravel the mystery of creemees - the mystery of their name, of how they're made and of why not all creemees are equal.
Creemee, creamie, creme, creamy, creemie, creeme, and yes, even kreeme. These are some of the spellings I've seen on my creemee tour around Vermont. Luckily creemee, or any spelling thereof, isn't a technical or official name for what people in other states most often call soft serve or soft ice cream. If it were, there wouldn't be the variety of regional spellings.
I use the spelling creemee simply because I like the exuberance of the four "e"s and the total disregard for the conventional spelling of cream. According to Byron Moyer, the dairy section chief in the Vermont Division of Food Safety and Consumer Protection, creemee is far and away the most common spelling in the state.
Moyer has a theory, he admits totally unfounded, about the origin of the word creemee. Before 1990 the official word for creemees was ice milk - a term that, Moyer noted, doesn't roll off the tongue very well and perhaps carried with it the stigma that the product was low end-low quality.
His best guess is that some brilliant person - probably a creemee stand owner - came up with the term as a variation of the adjective creamy, which accurately describes the product. If so, he observed, it was a stroke of genius.
I can't help but think, with Vermont's French history and proximity to Quebec, that the spelling derives from crème, the French word for cream. In fact, the Quebecois word for ice cream is crème glacée. The savvy marketing person that Moyer theorized about may have borrowed the French term to add some panache.
Ultimately no one is sure where the word creemee and its variations come from. Customers and stand owners most often speculated that it relates to the creamy texture of the product and its cream content. Some even speculated that creemees originally had more cream in them than today's standard soft serve.
Many stand owners keep an existing creemee spelling when taking over a stand. That's what Tom and Claire Wallace did when they bought the now celebrated yellow-and-white Village Creeme Stand in Bristol 26 years ago.
Pat and David Finlayson have been serving creemees at the Harbor View General Store in Hydeville for four years. They chose the spelling creamie because they serve a richer creemee, with double the amount of butterfat found in most. Others choose a spelling simply because it's a favorite or they like the way it looks.
What is a creemee, anyway?
When you lift the creemee veil, a Vermont creemee, in substance, is no different from soft serve available wherever Hood (or another similar creemee mix) is sold. (I mention Hood because 10 out of the 11 creemee stand owners that I spoke with use Hood, the exception being Garelick at Doreen's Drive In.)
Creemee mix is available in a variety of butterfat percentages - from fat free to 10 percent - but the most popular type in Vermont is 5 percent. This means that most creemees are lower in fat than ice cream, which, by law, must have a minimum of 10 percent milk fat (super-premium ice creams have even more).
It exists in a liquid and dry mix form (though Hood only makes the liquid form) and is available conventionally pasteurized or ultra pasteurized. The conventional pasteurized mix, which some call "fresh," lasts about 18 days while the ultra pasteurized lasts up to 3 months. There is no detectable difference in taste between the two.
Creemees are made in specially designed machine (most likely a Taylor brand machine) that keeps the mix at about 24 degrees Fahrenheit, while hard ice cream is stored at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. According to Dean Peters, director of communications at Dairy Queen, the warmer temperature of soft serve allows our taste buds to detect a greater burst of flavor.
The machine pumps air into the mix, creating a lighter weight product than most hard ice cream. The amount of air relative to mix is called over overrun, which in creemees is on average about 50 percent. By comparison super-premium hard ice cream has an average of 25 percent air. Some devotees prefer the lighter, fluffier texture of creemees, noting that their "melt-in-your-mouth" texture makes them easier to eat than the denser hard ice cream.
According to Claire Wallace of The Village Creeme Stand in Bristol, there's an art to getting the correct ratio of air to mix in a creemee. "The profit in creemees is the air," she said. "The only way you make money is to add volume to the mix. But it's a tricky balance. If there's too much air it's almost like pudding. If there's not enough air, it gets a grainy texture."
I don't fault stand owners for needing to make a profit via air. Creemee machines are extremely expensive (easily $15,000 to 20,000 or more) and costly to repair if they break, though many owners said that if they are properly cared for, they will last a good 20 to 30 years or more.
Creemee machines are also time-consuming and exacting to maintain, requiring the combined skills or a mechanic and hygienist. About once or twice a week - depending on the type of machine - creemee machines have to be completely broken down and cleaned. A sanitizer is run through the machine and then flushed out. All the machine parts have to be cleaned, sometimes lubricated, and then put back together.
According to the Wallaces of Bristol, that's easily a two-hour job.
Some creemee eaters are dubious about their contents. Nick Hammond, a Goodie's customer, said, "I like creemees because they're creamy and delicious. But I don't really know what the ingredients are. They could be made with potatoes as far as I know. I don't think there's any real dairy products in them."
The good news is that the basic ingredients in creemee mix, according to Moyer, from Hood, are milk, cream, egg yolk solids, sweetener, stabilizers and flavoring. Sounds harmless enough - after all, all of these things exist in natural form.
Yet, when gazing at the list of ingredients printed on a box of Hood ultra-pasteurized creemee mix, I felt I needed a food scientist to help me decode some of it: milk, sugar, corn syrup, cream, whey protein concentrate, natural and artificial flavors, mono and diglycerides, guar gum, polysorbate 80, carrageenan cellulose gum, salt, and vitamin A palimate.
Note: I am not a food scientist or nutritionist! However, when I looked up the scary-sounding ingredients I found that none seemed truly terrible and most seemed to derive from a natural source. And many of these ingredient names pop up industry-wide.
Still, couldn't creemee mix be made with a shorter list of all-natural and less-processed ingredients? That probably depends on what creemee customers are willing to pay and what their expectations are. For example, polysorbate 80 is used in ice cream and soft serve to provide a firmer texture and to help them retain their shape as they melt. Can we live with a less perfectly shaped product?
The creemee experience
The three major components that account for a good creemee experience are flavor, texture and density. Flavor is affected by the butterfat content (10 percent butterfat will provide more flavor and a creamier texture, though many people prefer the less-rich 5 percent mix), the amount of air added to the mix (the more air less flavor), and the proper maintenance and sanitation of the machine (insufficient or improper cleaning can lead to an off-tasting creemee).
Without question the optimum creemee texture is one that is completely smooth. Have you ever had a creemee that had a slight graininess to it or left a slightly chalky residue on your tongue? I have and it definitely compromises the creemee experience.
Some creemee stand owners told me that the grainy texture - which are water crystals - could come from an improperly cleaned machine, from not enough mix being pulled through the machine, or from an improperly set machine (resulting in too little air). Pat Finlayson of Harbor View General Store said that you are more likely to find crystals in a 5 percent butterfat creemee than a 10 percent one because the former has greater water content.
Density, directly affected by the overrun, or air ratio, is the third factor that characterizes a creemee and to some degree is a matter of personal preference, though there is a limit to how light or how dense a creemee can go. A denser creemee tends to be equated with a better quality product.
None of the creemee stand owners I spoke with knew the exact overrun percentage their machines are set to, but simply said that their machines were calibrated by a Taylor service personnel. Some stand owners said they asked specifically for a denser creemee when their machine was calibrated.
The people at Taylor declined to talk with me (overrun percentages must be industry-kept secrets) but their Web site states: "Decreasing overrun heightens flavor and color, and tends to be more refreshing to the mouth." I couldn't agree more.
What I've come to learn is accepting some je ne sais quoi in creemees is OK. Their variable nature can lead to heated debate about which creemee stand is the best. Wilcox ice cream is Wilcox ice cream not matter where it's served, but a creemee is harder to pin down. One blogger has even set up a Web site devoted to opinions and creemee stands called "I Dream of Creemee": http://idreamofcreemee.blogspot.com/.
Creemee culture is going strong in Vermont. According to Moyer, there are about 400 licensed stands in the state. National or even regional soft serve chains are noticeably absent in the state. As far as I can tell there is only one Carvel store and there are currently no Dairy Queen stores, though there used to be. (Moyer remembers one as a boy in Rutland and there was one in Montpelier. The Dairy Creme has two working 1950s-era soft serve machines from the old D.Q. in Montpelier).
Yet Dairy Queens exist in all the states bordering Vermont, plus Quebec to the north. I like to imagine an invisible creemee shield surrounding the state keeping soft serve chains from crossing the border.
When I confirmed this dearth of Dairy Queens in the state with Peters of D.Q. he said, "I'm blown away by that. I thought we had one in every state."
Wouldn't it be great if along with our unique word for soft serve and our vibrant creemee stand culture, there were also a Vermont-owned and produced creemee mix made with milk and cream entirely from Vermont dairies? All of the creemee stand owners I spoke with said they'd be interested in using a local-made mix if delivery were convenient and affordable, but they weren't convinced their customers would be willing to pay more for it (they've witnessed enough complaints over 5 cent increases). Most customers, on the other hand, said they'd probably be willing to pay a little bit more if the quality were equal or better.
At one time creemee mixes were made in the state by local dairy plants. Seward's Dairy and Thomas Dairy both used to make a creemee mix, and probably several other dairies (some long gone) have made mixes over the years. (Thomas Dairy now distributes Hood creemee mix; Seward's Dairy ceased all dairy operations in 1998.)
One of main challenges to creating a creemee mix is the seasonality of the product. Creemee sales only provide a few months of revenue and, as Tom Seward noted, expensive creemee-making equipment sits idle for most of the year.
According to Moyer, another challenge is the cost of the pasteurization equipment - particularly for the ultra-pasteurized mix, which can be prohibitive. Yet, the ultra-pasteurized mix is becoming increasingly popular among creemee stand owners for its convenience and the potential for receiving discounts from ordering in bulk.
Another challenge is pricing. An all-natural (rBST-free) creemee, produced in relatively small volume, would undoubtedly be expensive to produce. And yet the pricing would have to remain competitive, within reason. Would consumers pay more?
Ben & Jerry's has been producing what it calls a super-premium soft serve for about 8 years. Because their soft serve is super-premium (it has more butterfat and less air than the typical soft serve - though they wouldn't share the exact percentages with me) it is a little higher-priced than most soft serve.
"Because of people's conception of soft serve as something that is cheap," said Sean Greenwood, a senior publicist at Ben & Jerry's, "it's been a little bit of a challenge to bring it to the marketplace." He said when people try the product they like it and don't have issue with paying a little more for it than typical soft serve.
Despite these obstacles, the current focus on local foods and the desire to sustain a strong agricultural economy may make the timing right for a Vermont-made creemee mix. A new farmer-owned milk company in Hardwick called Vermont Milk Co. could provide the answer.
Vermont Milk is the result of a grass-roots effort by dairy farmers and farm advocate and sometime Progressive candidate Anthony Pollina to help farmers gain greater control over how their milk is priced. The company, Pollina said, takes the approach of a fair-trade company. "Milk prices fluctuate but we pay farmers a minimum of $15 per hundredweight. If the price goes above $15 we'll match that."
The company is able to guarantee its farmers a minimum - which last year was three to four dollars higher than the going commodity rate - by making added-value products with their milk, including cheese, yogurt and ice cream.
One of The Vermont Milk Co.'s newest ventures is a creamie (their preferred spelling) that is designed for a special dispensing machine called the One-Shot, for which the company has the exclusive franchise rights for all the New England states and the eastern part of New York, including New York City.
Their creamie contains rBST-free milk and cream, sweeteners (sugar, corn syrup solids, and dextrose), natural flavoring, and a stabilizer that consists of vegetable gum, carob bean gum and egg yolk. It has about 7 percent butterfat content and very little air in it. The One-Shot freezer keeps the creamie between 14 and 18 degrees Fahrenheit.
The One-Shot is much less expensive than traditional creemee machines ($5,000) and is essentially maintenance-free. Because of its lower price and convenience, Peter Burmeister, the chief operating officer at Vermont Milk Co., and the brains and taste buds behind their ice cream production, sees a strong market for One-Shots in convenience markets, delis, cafes and the like.
Vermont Milk is good news for Vermont dairy farmers. I hope that one day the company will investigate making a creemee mix for the 400 creemee stands that dot the state. Burmeister said that several people have asked them to produce one, but it's not on the horizon in the immediate future.
"Our creamie product," he commented, "would have to be an all-natural product, and that will require some research and development. Most creamie mixes are made from nonfat dry milk, vegetable oils and many unpleasant ingredients. That makes the cost-competitive aspect of things a challenge. Cream is a lot more expensive than soy bean oil."