Saturday, 31 July 2010

The ethics of ice cream

Recently a good friend and I spent a few days together in Melbourne. One afternoon we were rambling around the city's wonderful Italian precinct, when we passed a little gelato bar. The gelati, bright and varied like so many flowers in a brilliant bouquet, glistened invitingly from behind the huge glass display. It was the wrong time of day for ice cream. The dusky Melbourne chill had started to gather, and we were already pulling our coats tight against the cold – but we found ourselves drawn irresistibly into the cheery little shop with its big bright display.

Pistacchio, lemon, chocolate orange, caffè, caramelised fig, rum raisin, green apple, bacio, blood orange... I made a quick provisional review of the range of colours and flavours, and then, determined not to waste another moment, I resolved to begin the all-important business of flavour sampling. "I'd like to try the melon and the dark chocolate," I said to the girl behind the counter, who had been waiting with benign attentiveness.

"No, I'm sorry," she replied at once. "Only one sample per customer." She pointed with tight-lipped authority to a sign on the counter that confirmed this ominous regulation, the capital letters printed in a stark juridical font.

"One sample?" I said, a little unsettled. "But how can I tell which flavour I want, if I only get one sample?"

"I'm sorry, one sample per customer."

"But don't you see?" I said, smiling generously. "Unless I try two flavours, how can I choose the one I prefer?"

She shrugged pleasantly, peering down at me like a judge from the bench, all kindliness and good intentions, but ultimately powerless before those ineluctable proceedings. "I'm really sorry, but nobody's allowed more than one sample. It's the rule."

As everybody knows, tasting different flavours is one of the chief joys of visiting a gelateria. But the samples do not merely serve an aesthetic purpose, they also have an important psychological benefit: the comparison of flavours allows you to make a final decision free of the usual burden of Menu Anxiety (together with the threatening subsequent possibility of Menu Regret). On this particular occasion, however, things were becoming difficult. Under these circumstances, the choice of a sample was itself rapidly descending into all the consternation of an actual decision.

Mustering all my inner resources, I told her I would try the melon. She handed me the tiny plastic spoon with its reluctant globule of pale green ice cream. Nervously, but hopefully, I tasted it.

And didn't like it.

Trying hard to conceal my growing sense of alarm, I said to the girl, "I'm afraid I don't like the melon. What do I do now?"

She smiled sympathetically, all innocence, and raised her eyebrows as though waiting for me to place my order. "Could I perhaps try just one more flavour?" I said feebly. "Don't you see that I can't choose any flavour if all I've tasted is something I don't like?"

"One sample per customer."

Stirred by her apparent misunderstanding, I looked at her passionately, full in the face, appealing to her not so much as the gelato girl but as a fellow human being. "But don't you see," I said warmly, "it makes no sense to provide one sample! It's just the same as providing no samples at all! I'm sure I would love many of these flavours – but at the moment, all I know is that I don't like the melon. Really, if you could just let me try one more, just the caramelised fig..."

Half smiling, she said, "Honestly, I'd love to let you try another flavour" – but then furrowed her brow and continued – "but if I let you have one more sample, I'd have to let everyone do it." Her voice rose triumphantly as she tightened the knot of this invincible Kantian logic, this gelatogorical imperative.

Believe me, I know better than to try to argue with a Kantian; I thanked her and ordered two scoops of caffè ice cream. I have no complaint at all about the caffè. (Admittedly it was not altogether what I had in mind, but that is beside the point – yes, I admit it, the cream was a little too heavy, the flavour a little too sweet; to be perfectly honest there was even a hint of coarseness, which I deplore in gelato.) But as my friend and I made our way down the darkening street, talking happily with plastic spoons in hand, I imagined my gelato girl returning dutifully to her work, quietly satisfied that once again the law had been upheld – not merely the law of ice cream, but that eternal law by which all things in heaven and on earth are held in balance and by which the threatening tides of chaos are kept at bay.

"Enjoy your caffè ice cream," I imagined her telling me. "It is for your own good. It is for the good of all creation."

See also the gelato girl's response.

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