Friday, April 03, 2009

Haagen Dazs at 5 A.M.... and Other Cool Things About Being a Grown-Up

At five in the morning, having been awake and working for one entire hour, I padded into the kitchen, removed the pint of Vanilla Haagen Dazs I had bought for Shabbat…and had breakfast.

The ability to eat Haagen Dazs whenever the heck you want is definitely one of the coolest aspects of being an adult. In my mind, it just about cancels out other, less cool factors, such as stress, the prospect of one's impending death and belly fat that refuses to go away even after millions of ab crunches. (Of course, ice cream might have something to do with that. A bitter irony.)

My pre-dawn ice cream party catapulted me back to a dear and precious memory -- the first time I tasted Haagen Dazs ice cream.

The year was 1977 and my family had just moved to Forest Hills from Douglaston, NY, where my father had been the rabbi of a busy Conservative synagogue. Having recently earned his PhD in clinical psychology, he made a bold career change at the age of 47, leaving behind the highly public pulpit position he had held for 21 years in favor of a private psychotherapy practice in Manhattan and Queens.

The move away from Douglaston was actually a move up on the socioeconomic and sophistication ladder. Our new home was a solid, impressive brick home that cost more than three times the cost of the Douglaston home: a staggering $80,000.

Though we had lived in a woodframe nineteen fifies colonial house owned by the synagogue, most of the members of the Douglaston community lived in modest walk-up garden apartments in the Jewish section of town. (Old Douglaston was as grand as Great Neck. Alas, few Jews had been allowed in.)

Down the block from our house, on 61st Avenue, was an EJ Korvettes -- an emporium of downscale dreck, with the exception of their fine record department.

The other local department stores were Mays and Alexanders. Between these fine shops, the Danskin "irregulars" outlet on Union Turnpike and the occasional trip out to Williamburg to the ever-crowded and dusty Natan Borlam's, we built our uncool wardrobes. The Bloomingdale's branch that opened up in Fresh Meadows a few years earlier was some kind of fluke and I wondered where the store's customers actually lived.

Going out to eat entailed driving to Main Street in Kew Garden Hills for kosher pizza 'n falafel at Shimon's (the first such establishment) or Levi's (the competition, just a couple of blocks away).

Occasionally, we would troop into a diner, such as the Scobee Grill on Northern Boulevard or the Georgia Diner on Queens Boulevard where we ate tuna salad sandwiches festooned with frilly toothpicks, which came accessorized with a generous handful of potato chips, sour pickles and a scoop of cole slaw.

For special occasions, we headed down to the Lower East Side for Ratner's (milchiks) or "Schmulke" Bernstein's (fleishiks). Weirdly, there was one year that we made frequent visits to Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips, which my mother, the rebbetzin, somehow deemed kosher.

Though Waldbaum's was our local supermarket, my mother preferred to drive the few extra miles to Pathmark, which became our family's mecca, an alternate spiritual retreat, the consumer counterpart to our synagogue -- The Marathon Jewish Community Center.

I therefore grew up on Pathmark brand everything, including notebooks, shampoo and ice cream. Especially their ice cream, which my mom claimed was actually Breyer's in Pathmark packaging -- a sad delusion... or outright lie. Glorious exceptions to this included actual Breyer's ice cream, when it was on sale; the creamy perfection of Carvel at the local Douglaston outpost; and -- the pinnacle of every kid's dream -- Baskin and Robbin's, with their free tastes, pink spoons and 31 amazing flavors.

Despite my fondness for getting tastes of such creative ice cream incarnations as Bubblegum and Blueberry Cheese Cake, I always chose Pralines 'n Cream. And because there was a Baskin and Robbin's on Main Street in Kew Garden Hills, our pizza and falafel forays often included ice cream.

So, I was hardly deprived of ice cream pleasure in my youth.

However, when, at the age of 17, I discovered the heaven that is Haagen Dazs, my life changed.

I was babysitting for a glamorous young couple with two little girls. The wife was blond and beautiful, with a Lauren Hutton-like gap between her two front teeth. The husband was geeky, with a frizzy halo of hair. Still, they dressed to kill and were the uncontested king and queen of sophistication within the Orthodox community, which my family had awkwardly joined, now that my dad was no longer a practicing Conservative rabbi.

Thirtyish and the very quintessence of Yuppie-ness, though the word hadn't yet been invented, they lived in a massive and gorgeous corner property with landscaped lawns and chic interior decor.

The kitchen of their home was stocked with babysitter-friendly snacks, which the wife graciously pointed out to me. It was during my second visit to their home that I discovered the Haagen Dazs, indeed, a stash of the frozen stuff in a dizzying array of flavors -- Chocolate, Vanilla, Honey and Carob.

I tasted them all.

And depleted more than a few pints by myself.

The parents never noticed or complained.

It was a dream babysitting assignment -- a beautiful home stocked with multiple flavors of Haagen Dazs and two adorable little girls who were invariably asleep when I arrived. It was an excursion into fantasyland for me, a guest pass to a magnificent life on a scale of grandeur I had not experienced before.

And though I was hardly the kind of teen who fantasized about marriage or playing house or even being a mother (running away from home to live in Paris, or at least California was a more common daydream) this was a fascinating experience for me. Settling into their ultra-comfy leather armchair for an evening of prime television viewing, my fave thing was to save the Haagen Dazs blitz for the beginning of the Carol Burnett Show.

To this day, I have a Pavlovian reaction when I sample Haagen Dazs after a long period of abstinence. As the ice cream melts over my tastebuds, a song runs through my head: "I'm so glad we had this time togeeeether; Just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know iiiiit; Comes the time we have to say, so long. So long, everyone!"

In the home of my babysitting clients, I glimpsed a world of tastes and textures well beyond what was available to me in Douglaston. The fine clothes of the wife, the fashionable hats she wore for Shabbat and holidays at the Orthodox synagogue, the heavy furniture that bespoke taste and discernment, the well-behaved little girls with their dream bedrooms...all this was new to me.

And the readily-available Haagen Dazs was the cherry on the sundae of this new experience -- a taste of the World to Come.

Within a decade of my babysitting assignment, this beautiful couple divorced in a blaze of scandal involving matching his and hers affairs. Close-knit communities are always rocked by these things; even more so, Orthodox communities who sometimes consider themselves innoculated from the common temptations and downfalls of humankind.

Over the past thiry years, I've seen the two of them with their respective second spouses. They seem happy; however, I cannot help having a twinge of nostalgia when I recall my wide-eyed introduction to their home, their perfect-seeming family and their endless supply of Haagen Dazs ice cream.

The sun has now come up. Three hours have passed since my unorthodox breakfast and I took a break from blogging to get Little Babe ready for school, the dogs ready for their morning walk.

Naturally, I hid the evidence of my Haagen Dazs-fest from my son and husband. For Little Babe, this is obviously the worst kind of nutritional behavior to model and for HOBB, well, he just wouldn't understand.

Though I expected a blood sugar crash, none has come. Instead, I feel happy and calm, ready to face the Friday madness.

Perhaps I will institutionalize this little ritual every Erev Shabbat, a kind of spa for the soul and treat for the senses. As I grin at my secret indulgence, the words of the Carol Burnett theme song revisit me:

I'm so glad we had this time together
Just to have a laugh or sing a song
Seems we just get started and before you know it
Comes the time we have to say, so long.

1 comment:

t44e6 said...

I sat in a black shroud of mourning when Carob was retired. I swore off completely when Honey Vanilla was retired. Screw them.