Sweet emotion

Researching a book on America’s obsession with ice cream took alumna Amy Ettinger on some madcap adventures—and also led her to explore memories of her own life

Amy Ettinger (photo by Dan White)
Amy Ettinger (photo by Dan White)

Amy Ettinger had one thought as she fought the teenaged carjacker in Milwaukee: Are my notes in the car?

While not the best reason to engage in a tug-of-war with a criminal, the 43-year-old Ettinger (Merrill ’95, American literature) had cause to be worried. She was in the midst of doing interviews and collecting information for a book exploring America’s obsession with ice cream, and the loss of her notes and computer would have been a tough blow.

Luckily for her — and her readers — Ettinger was not hurt in the incident and her computer and papers were not in the vehicle, which eventually sped off into the afternoon sun. But the incident shows the kind of ethos Ettinger brought to her just-released book, Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America: a journalistic urge to go for the jugular but also touch the heart of anyone who has ever sighed in pleasure at the first lick of an ice-cold cone on a hot summer day.

Ettinger, who spent a number of years as a newspaper reporter and whose essays have appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post, began her writing career in fourth grade penning what she laughingly called “bad sci-fi novels.” But it was in high school that she got a taste of the direction her life would take. 

Long before Facebook and blogs made public confession a regular practice, Ettinger penned a high school newspaper column recording every bitter detail of a bad breakup. It landed her on the pages of a local newspaper.

“When I got that little bit of attention, I thought, ‘This is really fun,’” Ettinger said.

Later, while at UC Santa Cruz, she was hired by the San Jose Mercury News to write a monthly, first-person column about life as a 19-year-old college student.

But it was at UC Santa Cruz that, Ettinger said, her writing skills were focused and honed. A class on American novelists Toni Morrison and William Faulkner taught by literature professor Paul Skenazy inspired her “to want to settle down and learn the craft” of writing, she said. Another of his courses shifted her focus to exploring memoir — which eventually led to the idea of her debut book on ice cream, which Shelf Awareness called “adventurous” and “richly entertaining.”

So many of her childhood memories were tied up with ice cream, Ettinger said as she sat at the kitchen table in the home she now shares with her writer husband Dan White (Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping) and her 8-year-old daughter Julianna.

“I was the baby of the family with two older brothers,” she said, “and it always felt chaotic and loud in my house. TVs were blasting and my brothers would be playing different songs on different musical instruments in the house, and we would be fighting and there was the whole latch-key-kid childhood thing. But when there was a chance to have ice cream we all calmed down and sat at the table and made our own little sundaes and everybody was happy.”

It was that idea of telling the history of America’s favorite frozen treat (the average American eats almost 22 pounds of ice cream per year) while also exploring memories of her own life that led Ettinger to the book and long hours of detailed and experiential research.

She took a wild ride in the back of an ice cream truck in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; enrolled in the world’s most famous ice-cream making course at Penn State University; visited a water buffalo dairy that turns out a soft-serve gelato so good it left her weak in the knees; and even forced herself to down cups of frozen yogurt, which she abhors but her daughter loves.

She made gallons of ice cream, designed her own flavors, tasted enough of the frozen dessert to make her feel like she was in training to become a competitive eater.

She also uncovered what she considered an ice-cream heresy: due to strict laws about pasteurization, the majority of ice cream makers — even artisanal shops — use a pre-made base to create their mouth-watering concoctions.

Through it all, she never lost her love of ice cream, or its ability to bring back sweet memories.

As Ettinger talked, her daughter burst through the front door, her long red ringlets bouncing as she ran to say hi to her mom.

“Julianna was with me on a lot of my trips,” Ettinger said after giving her daughter a squeeze. “And here I am writing about my own childhood and I realized that my child is with me, and these are going to be the memories she’ll be transported to when she eats her own ice cream.

“And that,” she said, “is really very tender for me.”

Quick fact: Two UC Santa Cruz graduates are included in Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America. Kendra Baker (Crown ’01, language studies) is co-owner of the Penny Ice Creamery in Santa Cruz. Dave Kumec (College Eight ’91, economics) owns the Mission Hill Creamery, also in Santa Cruz.