Thursday, 3 July 2014

SWEET HERITAGE: CHERRY GARCIA, THE VERMONT COW AND LOCAL SUSTAINABILITY

BY: IRINA MIHALACHE

Waterbury is a small town in central Vermont with a little bit more than five thousand people, a handful of farm to table restaurants and one main road. However, Waterbury is one of the most visited cities in Vermont due to one iconic American (and global) dessert which comes in flavors such as: Cherry Garcia, Chubby Hubby and, most recently, Karamel Sutra. And I am sure that by now, all of you have recognized, with nostalgia, melancholy or excitement, the Ben & Jerry’s “sweet heritage”

Entrance to the Ben & Jerry’s factory
“Sweet heritage” is the term that I use to describe my experience in the Ben & Jerry’s factory, which offers its visitors a very interactive and engaging hybrid museum-like experience, highlighted by a 30-minutes factory tour, a taste of a new or classic Ben & Jerry’s flavor and a trip to the graveyard of retired flavors, to which I will return shortly. Along the way, I encountered various museum-like displays showing the history of ice cream scoop design or ice-cream making techniques before industrialized production. I will admit that I entered the factory with relatively low expectations, not in terms of the palatable pleasures to be experienced at the factory but in terms of the curatorial and interpretive strategies, which I did not imagine to be as clever and engaging as they proved to be.

FlavoRoom – the last step on the tour, where visitors taste the flavor of the day, 
image by Irina D. Mihalache 
The reason for the highly successful experience in the factory, for me at least, was the storytelling which I think I can best describe, without too much academic fuss, as a combination of tongue in cheek smart humor, fun cultural history references and food activism. As museum scholars and practitioners, we all know that one of the goals of any museum is to inform and educate, providing a few takeaways for visitors, something which they will remember beyond the walls of the museum (or the factory). The first stop on the factory tour is an eight minutes long introductory video which tells the story of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, two childhood friends from New York dropped college and took an ice cream making correspondence course. This would be the beginning of one of the largest ice cream companies in the world, which never lost its local connection to rural Vermont. The focus on Ben and Jerry, who are featured in the video several times, once even in an interview with Stephen Colbert, who was honored with his own ice cream flavor.

Sign on the wall of FlavoRoom. Photo by Irina D. Mihalache.

Stephen Colbert!
While the factory does not present itself as a heritage site, there are hints to “heritage” all throughout the space: in the care for telling and displaying the history of the factory, which is locally grounded in a rustic Vermont terroir; in the preservation of a coherent visual aesthetics referencing the much loved Vermont cow, obvious in a variety of places, from the trash cans to the bank machines; and the theme of local sustainability and social activism.

Large poster in the main lobby at the factory. Photo by Irina D. Mihalache

Cow-themed bank machine in the factory lobby. Photo by Irina D. Mihalache

In lieu of conclusions, I leave with my favorite tombstones from the graveyard of retired flavors, which displays, cemetery style, all flavors which have come and gone. Who said ice cream cannot make a political statement?

Photo by Irina D. Mihalache

4 comments:

  1. As a former resident of Vermont, I think you have aptly captured the Vermont-specific pride in their homegrown and well-made food products, which are never complete without a touch of social activism. I've noticed with Ben & Jerry's and other businesses based in Vermont (such as Green Mountain Coffee and Lake Champlain Chocolates) that no matter how large or multi-national the corporation gets, it seems to hold true to its core values -- and its headquarters in Vermont. It is interesting to read your take on how Ben & Jerry's presents this to the public in their factory tours.

    When it comes to culinary treats from Vermont, the apple cider donuts (available only in fall at various farmer stands and markets) will forever be my Proustian madeleine. But Ben & Jerry's comes at a close second!

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  2. Very interesting post about the Ben & Jerry's factory tour! I would never have thought that they had such a 'sweet heritage' for the public to see and engage in. I especially enjoyed the flavour graveyard - I wonder if they have any rebirths! I am also curious about the extent to which these flavours are reflective of historic events and changes. In particular though, I am wondering about the social and food activism that you, as well as Katherine above, allude to. Was Ben & Jerry's, as well as Vermont (vs. other states), involved in some major activism that I am unaware of?

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    1. Hi Nicole, I'm not referring to a specific event or focused activism, but rather a culture particular to Vermont that takes pride in ethical business and culinary practices. There is also a distinct prioritization of nature and home-grown craftsmanship. As to how this culture evolved (or whether there are actual events that have provoked its development), I can't say.

      But there are certain state/municipal laws particular to Vermont that illustrate what I refer to here. For example, the Vermont Billboard Law which bans billboards on VT highways, the banning of drive-thru restaurants in Burlington, or the uproar that occurred when McDonalds did not use real Vermont maple in their oatmeal -- a violation of the state's maple laws.

      Here's some evidence...
      http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mcdonalds-fruit-and-maple-oatmeal-not-real-maple-and-illegal-in-vermont/

      http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/vermont-celebrates-40-billboard-free-years-16410

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    2. So interesting! I had no idea about this culture in Vermont. Thanks for the further details.

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