As we stand in his colorful York Castle shop, with muted gray light drifting through the front windows on this overcast day in Rockville, Calver “Cal” Headley asks me if I can taste the soursop in his ice cream, and I confess that I can’t. His disappointment fills the air as thickly as the aroma of the nearby sugar cones. He insists that I give it another try — and offers an in-store demonstration.
Headley takes an indiscriminate spoonful of the ice cream, almost as large as a baked potato, and places the monstrous dollop in his mouth. As he talks about the slow-building, long-lingering flavor of the tropical soursop fruit, I can see the baked potato in the back of his tongue dripping down his throat. I follow suit and let my own mini-glacier of soursop ice cream slowly melt down my gullet.
I initially taste vanilla, which is the flavor that always hits my palate first when I eat soursop. But as the seconds tick by and I allow the ice cream to camp out in my mouth, my palate is alerted to other trespassers. There’s a distinct tartness creeping across my tongue, a quiet tickle of acid that’s hard to define in any meaningful way, which is what I tell Headley. I ask him to describe the flavor.
“It’s almost like milk on the edge of spoiling,” he says.
This description, I think, is brilliant, though I can’t imagine it will cause anyone to rush out to York Castle to sample the soursop. But as the minutes continue to roll by and I allow the soursop flavors to linger, undisturbed by a bite of another ice cream, a strange thing happens: More discernible flavors appear. I taste something reminiscent of pineapple, its razorlike tartness undercut with the vegetal funk of papaya. The simple, childlike pleasure of eating ice cream, I realize, has just been transformed into something much more sophisticated, and I’m hooked.
For better or for worse, soursop is the anomaly of the Jamaican ice cream world. It speaks in a whisper that can be easily stifled by the bold party boat of flavors typically found in local shops such as York Castle Tropical Ice Cream or Tropical Ice Cream Cafe in Silver Spring or Island Style Ice Cream in Mount Rainier. Think: passion fruit, rum raisin, mango, Guinness Stout, ginger and Grape-Nuts (see the sidebar).
“The flavor is very intense,” says Headley about most Jamaican ice creams. “So if you’re having mango, you know what it is.”
If anything defines Jamaican ice cream, it’s the use of fruits found in the tropics. Headley’s shop is a library of tropical fruits. He not only has two different “Exotic Fruit” posters hanging on his walls, he has compiled a binder of laminated pages on which he has slapped a cheap cover page: “My Book of Caribbean Fruits.” It details each fruit’s common and scientific names, its cultivation areas, its importance and its various seedy cousins.
In this way, Jamaican ice cream vendors are more dependent on the seasons than your typical frozen-treat chain like Baskin-Robbins, which may suffer through a winter sales decline but can continue to crank out rocky road and chocolate chip cookie dough all year long (and, incidentally, roll out such “seasonal” favorites as cotton candy and pink bubblegum). The proprietors of York Castle, Tropical Ice Cream Cafe and Island Style Ice Cream all say they use mostly fresh fruits, although there is something of a caveat here. Because certain fruits cannot be imported fresh to the States and because it’s cheaper and easier for overseas companies to harvest, de-seed and flash-freeze fresh tropical fruits, the Jamaican ice cream industry in the D.C. regionregularly relies on frozen products.
“It is better than fresh fruit sometimes,” says Caroline Tay, owner of Tropical Ice Cream Cafe. “It’s frozen when very ripe, so it maintains the sweetness and vitamin content.”
The difference between fresh fruit (or even flash-frozen fresh fruit) and commercially packaged frozen pulp can be startling, as I learned when I tried to make my own soursop ice cream. During its peak season in spring and summer, fresh soursop (also known as guanabana in Spanish-speaking countries) can be found at places such as the Caribbean Market in Takoma Park and some Latin stores around the area; when not available, you have to rely on the tiny frozen packages of soursop pulp or the stuff sold packed in cans with syrup.
The problem with commercial frozen pulp is fairly obvious as soon as you squeeze it out of its plastic casing: The stuff is like slush, like the Fla-Vor-Ice tubes of childhood. The water content surely dilutes the natural flavor of the soursop. My homemade soursop ice cream, based on the cheap frozen pulp, tasted nothing like York Castle’s or Island Style’s. It had little tartness and a more pronounced papaya flavor. It wasn’t bad, just different.
Of course, you could make the argument that, like most foods that migrate to the United States, Jamaican ice cream assumes a new identity. Many argue online that the real stuff back in Jamaica is prepared with coconut milk. This could be a case of the Internet echo chamber: While some producers may use coconut milk as a flavoring agent, Headley says the majority of ice cream makers in Jamaica rely on dairy, like almost everyone else. Still, changes do come here when the dessert moves north — and it’s not just about decreasing the massive amount of alcohol that Jamaicans love in their boozy rum raisin ice cream.
Headley, 61, originally from Mandeville, Jamaica, moved to the Washington area in the early 1970s to attend what was then called Columbia Union College in Takoma Park (now Washington Adventist University) to study accounting. Headley got his degree, but he also got an education at the original Gifford’s Ice Cream in Silver Spring, long before it devolved into bankruptcy. Headley learned how to make ice cream from Gifford’s veteran employees who had committed the recipes to memory, not paper.
The York Castle owner won’t come right out and say that his ice cream is based on Gifford’s recipes, but he hints broadly. “People who know it,” Headley says, “know right away what it is.”
Island Style owner Harry Brockenberry, 59, learned his ice cream-making skills from his wife, Pancita Brydson Brockenberry, a Jamaican native who died of breast cancer in January. Pancita, in turn, learned the craft from her father, who churned the ice cream by hand back in Jamaica. Because Harry and Pancita opened their shop in Mount Rainier, they decided early on to cater to the neighborhood with Jamaican ice cream. Many of their products are non-dairy.
“We have a lot of vegan people here in Mount Rainier,” Brockenberry says. “Most of them come in for the non-dairy” ice cream.
In more ways than one, the “Jamaican” adjective is not always an ideal descriptor for these American-style ice cream parlors whose customer base is probably more diverse than those shops back on the island. As Tay likes to point out, the fruits of Jamaica often can be found throughout the tropics, from the Caribbean to Africa to Asia. To single out these fruity ice creams as “Jamaican” has an almost tunnel-vision quality about it.
Sure, Tay changed the name of her Georgia Avenue shop several years ago after Headley filed a civil suit against her for breach of their original York Castle contract — it’s a long story — but she retained the part of the name that served her (and her customers) well: Tropical Ice Cream.
“I don’t like to limit it” with the Jamaican name, Tay says. “I have customers from all over the world, and everybody identifies with their fruit.”