Black Raspberry Summer Nights

When I was little, we used to walk along the cracked pavement streets of my grandpa’s neighborhood to the little Stewart’s gas station market on the corner. It was always summer – we almost never traveled to Upstate New York in the winter, snow and my mother’s hatred of it being the main deterrent – and there is in fact something magical about the “North Country” in the summer. 

Being so far north, the summer nights were long, and the soft light of the setting sun would still stretch towards us well past 8 pm as trucks whooshed past, fishing gear clattering in their beds. Once inside the gas station market, we’d go straight for the ice cream counter. There were at least twenty flavors available, but I only ever wanted one: black raspberry. 

In Upstate New York, as well as other parts of New England and northern Pennsylvania, black raspberry-flavored ice cream reigns supreme. Ice cream shops down south will claim to have it, but it’s not the same. There is something so uniquely delicious about local ice cream made up north, a haven of dairy farms, that it just cannot compare to anything claiming to be black raspberry down here in Virginia, if you can find it at all.

And no, black raspberry is not just a cute way to say “blackberry,” and it’s not just raspberry ice cream mixed together with some purple dye. There is, in fact, an actual “black raspberry” berry that has a hollow core and a fuzzy, soft exterior like a raspberry, but instead of red, it’s a deep, dark purple — a slightly less tart, less sickly-sweet, and fruitier cousin to the blackberry. They grow in colder climates and are harvested in July – around the same time my grandpa would be sneaking me down to the gas station for a double scoop.

“Don’t tell your mother,” he’d whisper, and the Stewart’s gas station attendant would load up a sugar cone so high that the little globes of dusky, purple ice cream would almost teeter off the edge. It was sweet and bright and creamy, and I’d always lick it too slowly on the walk back to my grandpa’s apartment until purple veins of ice cream were melting down to my elbow. It was me and my grandpa’s secret outing, trilling cicadas as our soundtrack, as we made our way back home in the waning summer light of Upstate New York.

A month ago, I started writing about my experience of going to an all-women food and hospitality group event focused on ice cream, but it didn’t quite feel right. I was going to write a pithy little intro about how I’ve come to love D.C. through its diverse food scene. There were going to be jokes, a little self-deprecation, I was maybe going to make fun of the obnoxious white dude in Denver, standing in a “new American gastropub” full of other white guys, who told me that D.C. had no diversity in its people or its cuisine. I was going to somehow tie it all together while quickly and breezily touching on the heavier subjects that were covered during an otherwise very lighthearted event focused on ice cream, gelato, sorbets, and female entrepreneurship, and it was maybe going to include a few pictures of my build-your-own ice cream sundae.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t walk home that night from Pineapple Collaborative’s “Dairy Queens” event feeling giddy and in touch with my local community just because we talked about all the cute flavor combos you can make with gelato, or how to stay motivated in business when you’re working around the clock. I was practically humming on my way home from the event because when I had first walked into the loft space of Big Bear Cafe, with its exposed brick walls, old wooden beams, and #instagrammable string lights everywhere, I found a room full of a wide array of people — women, men, families, children, grandmothers, women in hijabs, women in crop tops, women eagerly and unabashedly devouring their ice cream sundaes with unrestrained joy. It was one of the more diverse audiences I had ever seen at a Pineapple event.

I was moved that night because the panel of women who spoke about their businesses all came from different backgrounds that uniquely shaped their experiences in the food industry, and even shaped the flavors of their ice cream.

I teared up that night, specifically, because Hiba Akhtar of BlueNoon Gelato – a brand new, local gelato business — explained how the election of our current president opened up a space for hate in our country on the national stage. How she and her business partner’s families are from the Middle East and South Asia, from countries associated with war and destruction and chaos, and how they, despite having zero gelato experience, wanted to start a business that would help people learn about their cultures in a different way — to see what they see when they think of home, or their grandparents, or their own understanding of where they come from. So they decided to connect with people in the most universal way possible: through ice cream. 

After all, almost every culture in the world has some variation of a frozen treat that is reminiscent of ice cream. From the ancient Persians and Chinese, to today’s Shake Shack milkshakes and Korean bingsu, ice cream has a long history on almost every continent. 

But BlueNoon’s Syrian Lemonade gelato was particularly good. The tart, bright lemon, the coolness of the mint, the sweetness of it all swirled together — I loved it. Apparently Syrian lemonade is a very common drink served in the summer in Syria, and it was not lost on me that this was something I would have never known if I hadn’t engaged with a community beyond my own. The flavor felt like more than an ode to Syrian heritage, or a way to discuss Syrian customs in a different light than we normally do. It felt like a yearning for that Syrian summer, for an experience of home, just out of reach. 

Throughout the night, I learned about other flavors that each of the women on the panel were making, some of which I had never heard of (like Kunafa), and yet all of them tied back to a specific food or flavor or memory from their childhoods and their backgrounds. I immediately followed all the panelists I wasn’t familiar with on Instagram to keep track of them and their growing businesses. I wanted to eat more, hear more, learn more. It was more than just a sugar-high – it was that electric feeling of connecting and relating to a room full of strangers. Or, at the very least, connecting to their stories.  

I’m not qualified, nor is it my place, to tell BlueNoon Gelato’s full story – especially when they themselves tell it so well. I will only say this: more than a month ago, we had a horrific 24 hours of mass shootings. One of these shootings was the act of racist-fueled hatred. Misplaced anger incited by dangerous rhetoric that our president spews out every day from the pulpit and his (constantly-misspelled) Tweets. 22 people died. I – like most of the United States – continue to be absolutely astounded that our government does nothing to restrict access to types of military-grade guns that should never be in civilians’ hands. 

Dalia Mortada of NPR, Victoria Lai of Ice Cream Jubilee, Violeta Edelman of Dolcezza Gelato, Rabia Kamara of Ruby Scoops, and Hiba Akhtar of BlueNoon Gelato.

But I am equally angry that people continue to hate what is different, to refuse to sit in a room with people who are different from themselves, and just listen. I am tired of the hypocrisy of assimilated American immigrant communities being so hostile to new ones arriving on our shores.

I am so sad that impressive women like Victoria Lai of Ice Cream Jubilee, Rabia Kamara of Ruby Scoops, and the indomitable Violeta Edelman of Dolcezza Gelato have had to work two times, three times as hard to get to where they are because they are women, and because they are not white. And it is absurd that because of those two simple identifiers, they are treated with less respect and sometimes even violence. As if any other non-Native citizen has any greater claim over this country than the person standing next to them. 

This is not exactly groundbreaking news but hey! Just in case you weren’t sure: diversity and immigrants continue to make this country great. They continue to open up doors for the rest of us to learn about other people and other ways of life that we are not familiar with. They continue to build businesses, invent things, and create the very fabric of American society, as they have for decades of American immigration history. 

They even continue to unite us all around the universal love of ice cream. As Lai said, “Everyone has a memory associated with ice cream.” I brushed that sentence away at first. It felt rehearsed and comfortable, like a polished, Spielberg memory of an ice cream truck’s tune, winding down a suburban street. 

And then I took stock of the flavors from several of the “Dairy Queens” that I was so obsessed with, like Marionberry with Graham Crackers. Blueberry with Lavender. Boogie Backyard Berry. All of them somehow swirling with dark purples and bursts of berries that sang of a summer farther north. 

I wasn’t really sure how to put all of this into words or if I should share it at all except this: this past July, after this event, I spontaneously decided to drive the nine hours to Upstate New York for the first time in five years. I saw my grandpa again and, as he becomes less steady in stride and mind, I spent the whole trip acutely aware that it might be the last time I’d see him. For one day on the trip, it was just me and him again, just like it used to be, zipping down pothole-filled country roads, past open fields of Amish farms and abandoned American Legion buildings. 

Towards the end of the afternoon, we stopped by a cash-only ice cream shop, where we each ordered two scoops of black raspberry ice cream, mine on a sugar cone. “Don’t tell your mother,” my grandpa warned me conspiratorially, as if on cue. We sat under a tree and licked our ice cream until our teeth were dyed purple. 

How strange it would be, if I couldn’t tell this story without someone interrupting and asking me to justify their negative perception of my family, or where I come from? How awful would it be if I hadn’t even been able to go back to see my grandpa or the rest of my family this summer, because of war or violence? How terrible is it that people are too scared to open themselves up to the possibility of connecting with someone different than themselves? 

But how wonderful is it that while immigration and cultural identity are Big Subjects that require in-depth study and reflection, sometimes learning something new about the people around us, and the struggles and triumphs and humanity of their communities, can oftentimes be as simple and delicious as sitting in a room, listening to their stories, and eating a big ol’ bowl of ice cream?