Ice Cream with Dennis

I love ice cream.  Always have, apparently.  Always will, for sure.  When just five or six years old, soon after my family moved out of our basement apartment at Papa and Grandma’s house into our little family’s only home, we’d return to their home a lot.  It was just ten minutes away:  make a left out the driveway, left on Rowan, right on Alberta, left on Wellesley, right on Nevada, jog over to Hamilton, then a left onto Carlisle.  There it was; on the left, just across the play field at Logan Elementary School.

We went there weekly for breakfast waffles on the weekend or, for us two kids, even overnight on a Friday or Saturday.  It must have been about the time we moved out that Papa and Grandma bought their freezer.  As a little kid, it took some thinking to learn which was which, the refrigerator and the freezer.  It was important to know the difference because the freezer had the ice cream.

Both were white, both had one big door, and both were about the same size.  The key was the key:  the freezer had one, but the fridge did not.  I guess, of course, one may ask “Why not just remember their locations?  They don’t move ‘em around.”  Well, that’s true.  However, I’ve learned over time that kids don’t develop the concepts of space and time until later in life.  I guess that learning point occurred for me beyond kindergarten.

Whether we opened it or my grandparents opened it, that freezer got opened every time my brother and I went there.  Why?  Ice cream, of course.  It was always strawberry, chocolate and vanilla Neapolitan.  Our grandparents bought it in a two and a half gallon tub from Rosauer’s or Albertson’s grocery stores.  Greg was the one who went for chocolate, I was the strawberry guy, and we were “forced” to take equal amounts of vanilla.  Well, sorta equal.  Greg’d go down the brown column, I’d do the same for the red, and we’d end up with a stalagmite of white we’d have to keep whittled down to be able to reach further down into the brown and red stuff.  The tubs were huge for little (and even not so little) kids.

It went that way until Greg and I joined the Service when we were in our early twenties; he the Navy and I the Air Force.  Right after that, Grandma sold her home.  Our tubs of ice cream days were over.  Done, but not forgotten.  By then, acne had prompted us to limit our intake and later our weight did the same.  Stuff happens.

Later, Dennis introduced me to the exotic stuff.  Not in Spokane, but in Saigon.  Going back to Viet Nam for a second tour in 1971 gave me the chance to get to know Dennis.  Perhaps my longest lasting joy from that Viet Nam reboot was making friends with Dennis.  No, not “perhaps.”  For sure.  Dennis is a wonderful person.

Hey, now though, let me tell about a wonderful treat and experience to which Dennis introduced me.  First, it’s important to know Dennis loves food.  You wouldn’t have known it by how he always kept his weight in check, but you’d definitely know it by spending a full day with him.  It’s Dennis who enlightened me to the two worlds of people and for which I coined an expression to describe them:  some live to eat and some eat to live.  Dennis is among the former; me the latter.  That dichotomy also describes my wife Hsiu Chih and me.  That’s one of the reasons he and she had an immediate bonding chemistry when they met in 1978.

So, Dennis was a great guy to hang around for many reasons, only one of which was his knack for finding great food at low cost and his eagerness to share his discoveries.  Sometime during our second tour together, on a weekend, Dennis invited me to join him for ice cream.  Based on my upbringing and experience in military dining halls, I was thinking the treat would be strawberry with real strawberries or creamy French vanilla because of the French presence in Viet Nam.

Oh no, those would have been nice, but this was Dennis, my gastronomical epicurean adventurer and guru.  This was going to be Dennis-special.  I’m not sure how we got downtown from the Tan Son Nhut Annex where we lived, maybe by MACV bus which was still in operation or maybe by cyclo mai.  Regardless, we got downtown near that big Vietnamese GI black statue in a little park along Le Loi Street, near Nguyen Hue Street.  He led me along the adjacent sidewalks passing several eateries.  I was ready to gaze; he to graze.

Before long we ended up in a small, clean, charming and air conditioned ice cream shop.  This was a nice place.  I’m pretty sure it catered to the elite Vietnamese, European and American diplomatic, education, and business communities.  Air Force sergeants were not typical patrons.   Actually, I think very few military would ever go there.  This was a place for people who grew up with and lived lives in which food delicacies would have been “de jour.”

Dennis led me through the front door and got us seated at one of the few tables.  I’d never used that type of table and chairs, which I guess today I’d characterize as wrought iron bistro.  They fit the shop’s ambience perfectly.  It was nice to be someplace nice.

Along the back wall of the shop was a moderately sized commercial freezer with glass doors.  Inside was a variety of frozen desserts; some were dairy products and some were pastries.  Dennis took me back to the freezer to show me what they had.  I cannot recall if the place also served coffee, but, as I look back, it probably did because rich black coffee would have gone wonderfully with every single offering on its menu.

We went in there for ice cream as Dennis promised so we chose the pineapple and coconut offerings.  Looking at them through the display doors was intriguing because all I could see were brown coconuts and golden pineapples.  I figured you chose the flavor and they’d grind up the fruit as a topping over the ice cream and dump it in a bowl.   Viola!  Not so.

The waiter brought to our table a whole coconut and a whole pineapple.  At least, they looked whole.  After placing the fruit on white plates on the table, he delicately removed the tops from each one and removed those from the table.  There in front of us were a coconut shell and pineapple hull, each filled with huge chunks and slivers of their fruit in a vanilla based ice cream.  I don’t recall which of us had which flavor, but we probably shared samples with one another.

They looked so cool!  I couldn’t taste mine for quite a while because they were frozen, hard as rocks.  The dainty spoons we were given couldn’t even scrape the ice cream out, much less scoop it from the natural containers.  I sat there relishing the food and impatiently waiting for it to thaw to the point of spoonability.

Finally, and really, it must have been over ten minutes until we were able to make some dents in the surfaces of our desserts.  Rich, creamy, beautifully colored, and delicious!  Our spoons were those long handled ice tea spoons that enabled us to dig all the way down to the bottoms of the coconut and pineapple.  And dig we did.  Top to bottom and all around the insides.  All this while we sipped on room temperature water.  That warm beverage cut the flavor in our mouths just enough to allow the follow-on spoon of frozen dessert to hit our palates afresh.

I’ll bet it took an hour to eat our goodies.  That’s a looooooooooooooong time for a guy like me who can throw down a bunch of strawberry and vanilla ice cream in a big cereal bowl in just a few minutes.  Savoring the ice cream and water was delightful.  To this day, I still like to have just a bit of water with my very cold ice cream.

The rest of the afternoon is a blur for me.  What I’ve never forgotten, though, was how Dennis introduced me to life on a higher level amid a setting I thought I knew pretty well.  Over the following many years, he would do that many times over.  It all began that afternoon I discovered real ice cream with Dennis.

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