In the past several weeks, America has been hit with a wave of new ice-cream flavors, all of them collaborations between brands. Kraft Heinz and Van Leeuwen released a “limited edition” Macaroni & Cheese ice cream, which launched its own minor news cycle and sold out within a day. A novelty!, I thought. But was it? A few weeks later, the Marble Slab Creamery revealed that it had partnered with Frito-Lay on a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos ice cream, a limited-time offering at its 259 retail locations. (This too sparked a miniature media frenzy, which conveniently did not dwell on the working conditions at Frito-Lay.) The Dogfish Head brewery, meanwhile, teamed up with NYC-based Tipsy Scoop to debut an alcoholic Hazy-O IPA ice cream, which is available on Goldbelly and costs $99 for four pints. (Shipping ice cream is expensive.) Finally, the multistate cannabis operator MariMed is now collaborating with Boston-based ice-cream chain Emack & Bolio’s on a line of marijuana-infused ice creams. “There is a good vibe between our companies,” mused Emack & Bolio’s CEO Bob Rook, calling it the execution of a long-held vision.
It is time to call it. Enough cross-branded ice creams are enough. Ice creams should exist for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to be good.
To be clear: Some of these gonzo flavor collaborations are almost certainly delicious. All of them, perhaps. But that is not the reason they exist. They are marketing opportunities. Does anyone believe in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos ice cream? I want at least the illusion that some lone ice-cream artisan jolted awake one night with a vision. Instead, we have this statement from the head of Cheetos marketing: “Our fans’ biggest passion points are food mashups, and we’re constantly inspired by how they use Cheetos as an ingredient in their culinary creations. We know they will love Cheetos Flamin’ Hot Ice Cream and can’t wait to bring a little mischief to summer.”
It is craven pandering. And it is against the fundamental spirit of ice cream, which is, above all else, sincere.
It’s not that we should inherently object to ice-cream collaboration. Just look at Dairy Queen, which since 1986 has been pulverizing Heath bars, Snickers, and Oreos into its Blizzards. In fact, you could argue that ice cream is uniquely well positioned for collaboration. What can’t you mix into a semi-frozen sweet-cream soup?
Nor am I an ice-cream conservative demanding that all ice cream be sweet and obvious and time tested. I am strongly pro–ice-cream innovation. Recently, for example, I was talking with a flavorist in New Jersey who told me that over the past five or six years, she has seen an explosion of salted-caramel ice creams, to the point where she now considers the flavor a modern classic. This is what progress looks like: There was a time when salted caramel was not widely available, and now it is and we are all better for it. Cookies-and-cream was new once! Somebody decided many years ago that it would be fun to flavor ice cream with smashed-up pistachios, and while we’d all like to think we would also have thought of it eventually, we can never really know.
Perhaps the motivation doesn’t matter, only the consequences. If the taste is right, who cares if it’s a stunt? Me, I discovered.
Ice cream is a singularly earnest food. It can be playful — experimental, even — but it is not ironic. Ice cream is supposed to be an uncomplicated pleasure. It always means exactly what it says. It is a food that evokes childhood and inspires nostalgia: I did not actually grow up eating cones with rainbow sprinkles at the beach, but when eating ice cream, I feel as though I did and that is the part that matters. If an ice-cream flavor doesn’t immediately trigger a sense of unbridled delight, it has failed.
For that to happen, someone must believe in these flavors. I want ice creams developed with a conviction, or at least an illusion of a conviction, that transcends market forces. I want to believe that somebody — a lone genius, a corporate focus group outside of Cincinnati, I’m flexible — thinks that, in a vacuum, this would be a truly great idea. I want big swings. Most ice creams won’t ever turn into classics, obviously, but I want new flavors that try. If you’re going to do cold macaroni, by all means. But not smirking, limited-time promotion. Let’s see commitment. Ice cream demands you double down.