If you had to pick the professional ice cream taster out of the lunch crowd at Claim Jumper in Tempe, there's a good chance that John Harrison is the one you'd pick. He strides into the prodigious-portion eatery wearing half the colors you'll see under the glass at an ice cream parlor -- a yellow jacket over a blue shirt, a bright red bow tie with white polka dots and a hankie that matches it.
If all this should fail to suggest the whimsicality of the man's gig, his lapel sports a dead giveaway: a rhinestone pin in the shape of an ice cream cone.
Since he's just come from a public tasting demonstration at a supermarket -- he shows me the gold spoon he uses while tasting -- I wonder what kind of appetite for lunch he has. He admits he's already eaten a little. "When I demonstrate ice cream, I'm sampling," he says. "And I swallow. But when I'm working, I don't swallow, I spit." This is, he admits, part of the reason for the bow tie -- it's less of a spit hazard than a necktie.
The mental images thus conjured up have an effect on my appetite, too, I must say. Still, we both gamely order sandwiches, with clam chowder to start. Then this not-quite-60-year-old grandfather -- who's traveling the country promoting a Dreyer's ice cream tasting contest for kids (details of which can be had at www.conefactory.com; the deadline to enter is Friday, August 31) -- tells me the story of his improbably dolce vita.
"It's the Willy Wonka job," he gloats unabashedly. "There's millions, you know, just waiting for me to hang up the buds and the bow."
Now based at Dreyer's headquarters in Oakland, California, Harrison is a native of Tennessee. He speaks in a deep, silky drawl, with a tinge of evangelical thunder to its rhythms -- he's somewhere between Trent Lott, Foghorn Leghorn and Jerry Falwell. On the fundamentals of fine ice cream, for instance, he preaches the following homily: "The key word for good ice cream -- premium -- is clean! Eat a bowl! Don't get tired of it! But if you got a li'l Polysorbate 80? Li'l artificial flavor? Li'l whey powder? Artificial this and artificial that? That's what you get for a buck ninety-nine! You don't wanna taste it! That's why they gotta use artificial flavors, to cover it up!"
On that note, Claim Jumper's clam chowder is set before us. Harrison pokes at the thick concoction with his spoon, and lapses at once into the vocabulary of the pro taster. "I happen to like clam chowder," he says. "First of all, it looks pasty -- you weren't expectin' this critique, but I'm gonna give it to you, 'cause I don't punch a clock, I'm always tastin'. There's a restaurant in Oakland, on the Estuary, called Scott's. There's about three or four of 'em in the Bay Area. They make the best clam chowder. Mark, there's a flavor -- dunno what it is; it's a spice -- and it comes on the tail end, you don't get it up front. And it is maaarvelous. It rounds out that clam chowder."
Still, after a few bites he allows that Claim Jumper's chowder is acceptable, especially the potatoes, which he notes are nicely cooked through.
Harrison is, he claims, part of an ice cream dynasty. In the 1880s, his great-grandfather made ice cream and candy in two parlors in Manhattan. His grandfather started the first dairy co-op in Tennessee. His uncle owned a large ice cream factory, at which he worked summers as a kid. And his father owned a dairy ingredient company in Georgia, selling cocoa, chocolate, fruits and flavors. Harrison, who studied chemistry at Memphis State, worked for his old man for 14 years as a "formulator, troubleshooter and problem solver" in North and South America. It was through this work that he came into connection with Dreyer's more than 20 years ago. "They had a technical problem, and I was young and dumb then, went knockin' on their door, said, 'I can solve your problem,' and they gave me the opportunity." Several years later they contacted him and offered him a job as a flavor developer and quality-control taste-tester.
Our sandwiches arrive -- in enormous, table-straining portions, with, as is customary at Claim Jumper, a whole apple as a garnish. Harrison's ordered a Cobb sandwich (chicken, blue cheese and avocado) with broccoli salad. I've ordered a barbecued chicken sandwich with onion rings.
"That's weekend food for me," Harrison says, pointing perhaps a bit enviously at my sandwich. "During the week, gotta avoid onion, garlic, peppers, anything that clogs the buds. Don't smoke, don't drink, don't chew. But on the weekend, let the hair down, have a little pepperoni pizza, garlic mashed potatoes. Back off on Sunday, get ready for that Monday morning tasting."
His delicate buds must have a broad range indeed. Dreyer's, which Harrison proudly notes is the number-one packaged brand in the country, adds about 15 flavors to its line each year, he says, and subtracts about the same number. Harrison's own favorite is vanilla bean.
That restful personal choice may reflect the travails of Harrison's creative process. He keeps me on the edge of my seat with the suspenseful tale of his struggle to develop a pear sherbet for Dreyer's: "The company wanted it in the worst of ways for a food service account, a pie company that was makin' a pear pie or somethin'. They wanted a pear sherbet on top. I worked on that thing for three months. Man, I had a color like an Arizona sunset, it was gorgeous. I had the typical grit of pears, between the teeth, you know? But the flavor was like gnawin' on that carpet down there. Flat! No flavor at all!" He shakes his head.
"Company had some pressure on me, you know? 'We need this, John, come on through, we gotta have it.' So I'm walkin' out of the lab, I'm talkin' to myself, 'Man, what does it take to make a good pear sherbet?' And the thought came to me -- go back, and add a skootch of cinnamon. And Mark, when I added that cinnamon, wham! That flavor burst out of there . . ." But this triumph came to little, sad to report. "The company liked it so much they said, 'Let's put it in quart packages,'" he recalls. "Didn't sell. Didn't sell. People like kind of your basics."
Harrison says that his quality-control tasting results in more rejections than one might guess. The Oakland facility alone, he says, donated, to food banks and missions, half a million gallons that didn't meet its standards. "Too many pecans in the butter pecan is just as bad as too few. That's the major issue. Color -- too much, not enough. Complaints like that."
The specifications are strict. "We have a French vanilla. And when you make a French, by law, ice cream manufacturers have to add 1.4 percent egg yolk solids, so it comes out creamier, smoother, more yellow in color, and we also put the ground vanilla beans in there, and it really is rich, but it's very delightful." I'm sure it is, but all I can think about is how hard it is to imagine the federal government codifying into law the proper ingredients of French vanilla ice cream.
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"But they have!" booms Harrison. "That's the beauty of this nation, when it comes to foodstuffs. You go to the grocery store over here, for 90 percent of the packaged food you buy, there is a standard of identity! . . . That's the comfort of America. You buy ice cream here, you know what you're gonna get."
Then, not forgetting that Dreyer's isn't the cheap stuff, he hastens to add, "Depending on what you pay."
Harrison, weakened appetite notwithstanding, has finished his sandwich. "Very tasty," he says. I've finished most of mine, too. The server asks us if we've saved room for any dessert.
Needless to say, we both decline.