All of us have foods that unleash floods of memories. For Marcel Proust it was Madeleine cakes. For me, one of those foods is ice cream.
I simply love ice cream. In my birth town of Hanover, it was only available in summer, when the local bakery made it once a week. We rushed over to buy it, and hurried home before it melted. Then, at my request, Mom, Dad, Anna the cook, Detta the nanny, and I all sat on the stairs of our creaky Victorian house, licking away at the cool Manna to our heart’s content.
I love all iced desserts. I date my first gourmet epiphany to a slice of Italian semifreddo studded with bits of candied fruit, nuts and chocolate. I have learned to make my own fruit ices redolent with kiwis or mango, and a praline soufflé dripping with calories. But I also swoon over a Good Humor bar—good vanilla ice cream with a hard coat of chocolate—or a sugar cone filled with Häagen Dazs.
When my children were young I discovered Serendipity 3, a dreamy confectionery on Manhattan’s East Side. It is filled with stained glass lamps, improbable sculptures, and other nonsense. The shop serves delicious chocolate and ice cream concoctions. We went to celebrate achievements and to mourn losses. Taking my grandchildren there a generation later was proof that I, an immigrant, was growing roots. Since Jacqueline Kennedy was said to have taken Caroline there, I even felt that I was part of New York City’s elite.
The other day I had to waste some time in the neighborhood and decided to revisit Serendipity. It had not been a good day and memories of my past happiness eluded me. I felt bereft. I love my daughter and my grandchildren, I thought, but they are too big and busy to appreciate ice-cream outings! What am I doing here all alone? Serendipity does not even carry decaffeinated coffee! Worse, unbidden, the memories of other ice cream-centered celebrations entered my consciousness.
In 1933, Germany turned ugly. Hitler despised Jews and it had become difficult for my mother to find a school that would accept a Jewish child. Finally the liberal Rudolf Steiner-Waldorf School did. The children were rather tolerant of Ruth Iris and me, their only Jewish classmates. In 1937 we accompanied the class on its annual school trip. When an SS member spotted the two of us at the inn where we were staying overnight, he insisted that we be sent home immediately because he “could not possibly sleep under the same roof as these Jew pigs.”
My parents fortunately owned a car and fetched us in the middle of the night. To console me my mom gave me a generous amount of cash to buy myself an ice cream sundae at Hanover’s beloved Eis Palast (ice cream palace). I did, but could hardly swallow my favorite food. I fervently wished for company with whom to share this adventure. In no way did the ice cream make up for the rejection and humiliation I felt after my ejection from the inn.
My family left Germany for Belgium in 1938; the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940. Two years later my family started hiding in “plain sight.” By then I was old enough to work as a mother’s helper and during the next two years lived with four different families. Food was in very short supply, and ice cream unheard of. My mom learned of a pastry shop that for 50 francs clandestinely served Dame Blanche, i.e. a “black and white” hot fudge sundae. As a very special treat, my mom gave me the money.