Weighty matters: Ice cream's soft, and so am I

There once was a time that keeping weight off was effortless. For most of us, we could eat whatever we wanted because the act of finding food was enough to burn it off.

As a child, I had no control over my mother's cupboard. She was thrifty. There was no junk food in the house, nothing to make a satisfyingly trashy between-meal snack. The pursuit of illicit treats took a great deal of time and energy.

I had a regular route I covered. This was in a more innocent time when a seven-year-old could wander alone literally miles from home on a bicycle and not be in grave danger. I checked the coin returns of pay phones and cigarette machines– yes, it was a different time– and often came up with enough forgotten change to make a buy.

Another source of income was loitering near lunch counters (remember lunch counters?) and sliding onto the stool next to someone departing. If no one was looking, you could cup their tip money and slide it over in front of you, then innocently order an ice cream cone. My backup strategy was to use this maneuver only when I had the price of the cone on me. If the counterman took the tip money, thinking it was mine, I still had my money and could score a Turkish Taffy bar on the way out. If he was on to me, I could innocently pay for my ice cream out of pocket.

My mother thought soda was an evil invention that destroyed good health. It had to be a very special occasion to get a soda, a birthday party or high holy day at least. One of my headiest childhood memories is pooling my change with two other neighborhood kids on a frosty winter day, scoring a big bottle of Nehi orange soda and hiding in a crevice in a hedge to consume it, passing the bottle around like little winos.

When I was older, I stockpiled my allowance for one of three secret passions, a single scoop cone from High's Ice Cream, a poppy seed bun from the bakery or a big Nestle's chocolate almond bar.

When I left home, it was budgetary restrictions that kept me thin. I didn't have a car in college and thought nothing of walking 12 blocks to get to my classes. As a young single mother, I pushed the baby carriage full of the baby and the laundry six blocks to the Laundromat and 15 blocks to Sears-Roebuck. I didn't need an exercise class. My life was an exercise class.

My problem these days is simply easy access. I have money for junk food now. After a long day of sitting in front of a computer, redistributing and accumulating weight so I am currently shaped more like an office chair than a woman, I can drive my car to the ice cream stand, expending zero calories to consume many. I creep back to the car like Smeagol with my precious double scoop on a sugar cone and sit in the parking lot, devouring my treat.

Most families go to the ice cream stand after dinner on a Friday or Saturday night. If you're there at lunchtime during the week, you're either retired or addicted.

I sit there watching my future as more obese people roll out of their cars to score an illicit cone. I know just how they feel. No matter how disgusted you are with your weight, it's a powerful little voice that whispers in your ear that cold, creamy comfort is near. Am I that big yet? Am I on the way to that big? Why can't I stop coming here?

One noon time, I'm on line at Bruster's Ice Cream (have you had this stuff? It's incredible. I drive by a Baskin-Robbins to get to this place.)

The group ahead of me is all retired people. They recognize an addict. "You know," says one of the men, "Someone opened a Carvel a mile down the road at the new shopping center."

My jaw hits the ground. A Carvel? That's like saying you've found a back door to heaven. "Some guy from up north decided to get a franchise because he missed the stuff, but I don't think it's the same. It doesn't seem as creamy as I remember," he continues. "That's why I'm here instead."

Now this is the sign of a true addict, someone with a serious problem, someone who needs an Atkins Intervention. I don't get out of line to go to Carvel. I stay in the Bruster's line. I get my chocolate raspberry truffle on a sugar cone. I eat it in the car. Then I go down the road to Carvel!

I get a chocolate soft serve and a package of Flying Saucers to take home. And the guy is wrong. It is too creamy.

But it is too much. Too much ice cream scored too easily. The addiction may have me by the waistline, but the thrill is gone. I wonder if it's the same way with drug addicts. The high isn't the same, but you still have to do it. The man who didn't think it was as creamy is just remembering better times when pleasure was more distinct. You had to work harder to get it. And once you got it, you enjoyed it without guilt or gaining weight. It's not that it isn't as creamy, because it is. It's just that the memory of getting what was hard to get years ago was much, much sweeter.

Mariane Matera is a Richmond-based writer whose sparkling essays are found in several fine publications.