On Being a Professional Ice Cream Taster
The first buck I made in the States was as an ice cream taste tester. I landed this plum “job” at the Orange Park Mall in Florida when accosted by a clipboard carrying survey taker while window shopping. With nothing else to do, I dutifully answered her 101 questions about my dessert eating habits (it was a lengthy interview). Apparently I answered the questions correctly, and in return I was offered a gallon of ice cream and $10 to participate in a consumer product testing program. All I had to do was keep a journal of the consumption: things like what was I doing when I ate it, what time was it, what did I eat it with, who else ate it, was it melted or not, and how did I like it. When I turned in the journal, I received my $10 and another gallon.
We had just moved to Jacksonville, Florida when Nick was assigned to an FA18 squadron in the Navy. We were poor: I was unemployed, a new immigrant fresh off the Ryder rental truck from Canada, and we were newly married. Nick made a whopping $15,000 a year as an ensign. We discovered it was cheaper to buy a townhouse with a low interest loan for poor people like us, which required no money down; this was good, because we had none. The townhouse, however, was not yet built, so we left our meager belongings in military storage (never a smart thing to do if you actually want your possessions back, or at least undamaged, we soon learned) and looked around for a furnished short term rental.
We lived in the BOQ (Bachelor Officer’s Quarters) for a month until they kicked us out to make room for actual bachelors, and then we scrambled to find a place near Cecil Field Naval Air Station where Nick was stationed. If you have ever been out by Cecil Field, at least in the 1980’s, you will agree that there is not much out there besides scrub brush, dusty fields and barren highways. And trailer parks.
Yes, we actually moved into a double wide, furnished (I use that term loosely) Florida red neck trailer. In hindsight, we would have been better off at the Holiday Inn 2o miles aways paying $1500 a month. We were lured to the trailer park’s low rent of $350 a month, but soon discovered that a) it is very expensive to put in phone lines and fill huge empty oil tanks where apparently most other trailer park dwellers live without these necessities, and b) the phone, electrical and power companies expect cash payments up front when you are poor like we were. The $350 quickly ballooned five fold, and I wondered how on earth poor people could ever save money and get ahead.
The first night in the trailer we nearly froze to death. The cool September day had turned into an unusually frosty night, and without power, heat, sheets or blankets on the pee stained bed (which, thank God, I could not see because it was so dark), we newlyweds spooned and huddled together beneath his flight jacket. We both woke up with hacking coughs and sore throats, most likely from the disgusting germs left on the bed by the previous human-like occupants.
The first morning in the shitty little trailer, as we soon lovingly called it, was no better. As I moved a cutting board near the sink to start breakfast, several large cockroaches scampered out and over my arm. My pure Canadian eyes had never laid eyes on a roach, and I screamed bloody murder. Nick thought I was being hacked to death by the crazy ax wielding neighbor we had seen lurking the day before in the dusty patch of weedy land next door. Nick leaped out of the shower only to find me standing on the arm of the filthy couch as a line of fist sized, black armored rat-like roaches marched around, taunting me.
The shower was, if you can believe it, worse. Years, and years of caked hair had formed in the drain, enamelled to the filthy plastic shower stall with puss like, soap scum that gushed through my toes when I accidentally stepped on it. As the trickle of cold, rusty water sploshed down on me and on to the floor of the stall, the water began to rise up around my ankles. I reluctantly bent over to tug at the congealed hair/soap formation in order to unplug the drain, and that’s when I started to heave uncontrollably.
So, back to the ice cream job. After using every last cent of wedding gift money to pay for the barest of essentials, Nick and I could not afford to eat out or go anywhere. We had no friends yet, did not have a TV or radio, and had nothing but a bare light bulb hanging over our heads in the cockroach infested trailer park kitchen. We would sit at that rickety faux wooden table, night after night, playing gin rummy and eating ice cream. We stole the slogan from the upscale restaurant chain, “Po’ Folks” and adopted it as our own: “we poor but we proud.”
We became ice cream eating experts, and were soon consuming a gallon a day. We were thrilled to be making an extra $70 a week eating ice cream. We would try letting it sit out on the counter for an hour, and describe in great detail how the melting ice cream looked, tasted, felt on our tongues, and slid down our throats. We stirred it into our coffee, ate it over cereal for breakfast and served it to the starving neighborhood kids who peer at us longingly through the window of the screen door. We would ask them to comment on it too, collecting their adjectives as we handed out cones.
I am sure that no other ice cream taster succeeded at their job as I did, but after several weeks on the job, our interest in the same old cold frosty product waned and I reluctantly gave it up when I found a job consulting in the similarly cold market of computers. I had not been told anything about the brand or make of the ice cream, but I deftly figured out, due to the flecks of black specks dotting the cream and the creamy custard taste, that is was Breyers All Natural Pure Premium Ice Cream — Natural Vanilla, and to this day I feel largely responsible for bringing it to market.
(Note: around 2006 they swapped out the vanilla beans for fake specks, and the taste just isn’t the same. I wonder if they need me to come back to taste and provide more commentary?).