Remembering a time before everything was artisanal, small batch and super expensive.
We should have known this was coming. In a world where $5 is considered normal for a coffee, where we happily stand in line at lunchtime for salads costing upwards of $10, where a $12 cocktail is heralded as good value—why shouldn't something as simple as ice cream become a luxury item?
It's been fun, these last few years, watching the American frozen dessert landscape go through nothing short of a seismic transformation—where tragic half-gallons of Breyer's Vanilla once collected ice crystals in supermarket freezers, we can now choose from what seems like more kinds of artisanal, small-batch, handcrafted, lovingly-made sea salt caramel something or other than Baskin Robbins has flavors.
Little producers like Jeni's Ice Creams, once known only to lucky fans in its Columbus, Ohio birthplace, now ship $12 pints, all across the land. Salt & Straw, a creative ice cream parlor in Portland, Oregon, is suddenly operating highly-stylized shops up and down the West Coast where a sundae can cost as much as a quick dinner. This sudden iced gold rush is by no means limited to new producers, either—older regional favorites like the old-school Graeter's in Cincinnati, or McConnell's Ice Cream in Santa Barbara, California, jumped into the fray with fancy image makeovers and, quite often, significant price increases.
But it doesn't end there—not by a long shot. Not content to rest after the seemingly permanent upscaling of our hard ice creams, the industry has now turned its sights on the humble soft serve cone. Many of us grew up on these simple summer treats—if you didn't have a classic drive-in staffed by detached teens whipping out twist cones in your town, there was probably a Dairy Queen out by the highway, somewhere—they may have seemed like a luxury when we were little, but they were actually a relatively cheap indulgence.
That was then—everywhere you turn these days, it's all about soft serve, and how everyone's doing interesting things with it; even in places where it's been "elevated" for some time now—say in California, where they've been snacking on Straus' Organic Soft Serve for over a decade now—soft serve was still something that came in cups or went into milkshakes at everyday favorites like Super Duper Burgers in San Francisco ($3.25 for a cone), or Pitfire Pizza in Los Angeles ($4 for a dish).
A few years back, you could easily find people who thought those prices were absurd—these days, $7 seems to be more the bench mark, whether you're standing in line for one of those activated charcoal ice creams at LA's Little Damage, or the taiyaki (Japanese waffle cake) cones at the popular Taiyaki, in New York's Chinatown. Not that it's stopping anybody—a good portion of the customer base seems more concerned with sharing images and video of the experience across their various social media platforms.
Yes, the time when pretty much everyone who knew about these things still agreed that Boston was America's ice cream capital (See: Toscanini's in Cambridge—no, seriously, go there) and you had serious food writers opining that Häagen-Dazs was still one of New York's best ice creams—it seems so long ago now. Here's a fun fact for you: Those were things that happened in 2003.
Which is great, actually—that just means it's not too late to start a campaign to get everyone to stop going broke every time they want an ice cream. From Talenti's creatively-flavored gelatos to Häagen-Dazs' simple, five-ingredient originals (they're now going GMO free, by the way) to regional favorites like Oregon's Tillamook, Chicago's Oberweis Dairy, Blue Bell from Texas (their Bride's Cake flavor is pretty spectacular) and even brands from better regional supermarket chains like Publix or Wegmans, when you're finished riding the ultra-super-mega-premium roller coaster and your wallet's been emptied for the last time, there's plenty of good, reasonably priced ice cream all around you—if you'll have it.