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Carvel soft-serve still has the power to melt my heart

Washington Post Food Anchor Mary Beth Albright visits the Carvel archive in the basement at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Malcolm Cook/The Washington Post)

I love white truffles, aged Japanese whiskey and other things a food person is supposed to love. But there’s a 7-year-old inside me that swoons over Carvel, the soft-serve ice cream of my Queens childhood. Some treats are best as memories (eyes on you, Twinkies) or are upgraded by hipster interpretations (bakery pop-tarts). But even gourmets, churning out flavors like matcha and rose water, can’t break my attachment to Carvel.

Carvel is creamy and fluffy, as soft-serve’s yielding texture comes from being closer to body temperature than hard ice cream and from extra air. It disappears practically upon mouth contact, leaving only a slight chill and lovely sweetness. I’ve always had the same order: vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles. My mother’s is still a cherry dip, and has been since cones were 10 cents (2 cents extra for the dip) when she grew up in Queens in the 1950s, blocks away from young Donald Trump. (The president’s oldest sons posted photos of themselves with Carvel on their most recent birthdays. And Oprah’s very first interview was with a Carvel man. Washington clearly needs Carvel as the great American uniter.)

The responsible adult in me avoids most foods with 10-letter, unpronounceable ingredients. I savor ultra-premium ice cream, which I’ve been known to mail order from Brooklyn and release from its Styrofoam chests with dramatic billowing clouds of dry-ice smoke. But I can daydream with a Carvel cone, with my feet up and eating quickly lest it drip down the paper napkin in sticky streaks on my arm.

If loving Carvel is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

One of Carvel’s iconic soft-serve cake characters, Cookie Puss, caused a happy riot when I brought it into the newsroom for beauty shots last week, with his ice-cream-cone nose and maraschino cherry eyes. Most Carvel cakes are just two single layers of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and no cake (what witch ever dreamed up putting actual cake into an ice-cream cake anyway?), with chocolate “crunchies” in the middle. The crunchies are, I believe, a precursor to the cocoa nibs and chocolate pearls appearing on dessert menus everywhere. Really, we were just nostalgic for the crunchies.

There is a Montague-and-Capulet-magnitude argument over whether Carvel or Dairy Queen created soft-serve. (Some British politicos once claimed that Margaret Thatcher helped invent it during her stint as a chemist for a company with close ties to Mr. Whippy ice cream — but the claim may have existed mostly so her opponents could joke that she “added air, lowered quality and raised profits.”) We do know that in 1934, Tom Carvel’s ice-cream truck got a flat tire, forcing him to sell melting confections out of the back. He quickly realized that people loved the texture and set about selling soft ice cream. My personal devotion led me deep into the Carvel archive at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, after which the archivist — a Midwesterner partial to Dairy Queen — admitted that indeed Tom Carvel probably invented soft-serve.

Ever since Carvel sold his business in 1989, the number of stand-alone franchise stores has dwindled. Buying ready-made Carvel cakes from a grocery store is fine in a pinch, but not the same as visiting a shop for a soft-serve cone or a custom Fudgie the Whale cake (respect, please — it’s a federally registered trademark). I’m not alone in loving the Carvel store. According to Carvel and several news accounts, in 2010, Lindsay Lohan’s mother, Dina, and the rest of the Lohan clan “abused” Lindsay’s Free-Carvel-For-75-Years card with “more than six months of numerous and large orders for ice cream.” (The incident, no doubt, inspired an episode of “30 Rock” that featured a Carvel scam.) An employee tried to physically confiscate Lindsay’s Carvel card from Dina. The police showed up.

Carvel is that good.