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.


Anonymous said...

Imagine again my friend...your gelato girl was more likely thinking 'I wish the boss would just let me tell them to fuck off'

Anthony Douglas said...

The gelatogorical imperative - brilliant!

Anonymous said...


Paul Tyson said...

The kingdom which is not heaven is like… someone trying to sample some gelato. Beautifully, yet equally powerfully, and equally disturbingly told Ben. This story is not an iron fist inside a velvet glove, it is more like a scalpel inside a cream bun. Grace, particularity and the substantive logic of love here stands in stark opposition to law, universality, and the formal logic of juridic justification. Our assumptions concerning who God is and what salvation might be are deeply probed by this amazing gelato parable. We are – I think – still often prisoners of Kant, and thus I think we are in deep need of this kind of Kierkegaardian, Babette’s feastian throwing of gelato into the iron cage of our small beliefs about God, grace and salvation.

Andrew Jacobs said...

This might just be the greatest post on all the blogs throughout all the internet! I might have to use this in class sometime. :)

Anonymous said...

Trying the ONE flavor that is the bigger risk given your respective palate can be quite beneficial when deciding between two.

Kim Fabricius said...

Believe me, I know better than to try to argue with a Kantian. Ha!

But even worse at a gelateria, a Pecantian.

Kampen said...

This reminds me of an account Umberto Eco gives of his childhood ice cream eating memories. One could buy two cent ice cream cones or four cent ice cream pies, but when Eco witnessed some of his peers receiving two two cent ice creams, one for each hand, he wanted that as well, but his parents would not allow it. He could only either have one two cent ice cream or one four cent ice cream, but two two cent ice creams were out of the question. I posted his short essay on it over at ortusmemoria if you're interested.

Anonymous said...

So how would this apply to no sex before marriage? That's like no samples at all!
Maybe that's why there's promiscuity?

Emerson Fast said...

Snooty customers who expect the prole to answer for the finer points of business legislation. Ughhh.

I'm glad this girl held her ground lol

Pamela said...

Poor gelato girl - just trying to make a living and keep her job! It's the owner of the gelato establishment who should have been answering the questions. I tend to agree with very first comment made.

Mike W. McVey said...

I guess you are too kind. If they said one sample per customer I would say that they won't have a customer without a second sample. Assuming they don't budge, I would then say that I will not be a customer and would love a second sample. Obviously they can't argue with you because you are not a customer and could theoretically have as many samples as you want. :)

Tom Gilson said...

"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.) "

No, don't argue with a Kantian. The world is rife with antinomy: in this case, deploring that of which one has no complaints. ;)

blogGNOSIS said...


Greg Clarke said...

From the title, I was expecting Wallace Stevens, not Kant...

Anonymous said...

I found this site a couple of days back after doing a certain Google search and find the level of discussion quite compelling. Am Buddhist oriented, but like to read theological commentary from time to time, and am interested in the philosophy-theology-science-religion interplay, as a layperson. Buddha would be ok with all of that I'm sure.

I happened to notice that the most active category is ethics, and this item mentions Kant, so that's pretty consistent.

Also, there was a reference to Bultmann on the site a while back and wanted to share a site with you:

It's written by an interesting writer who used to contribute to a Yahoo group on Gnosticism back in about 2001.


Anonymous said...


Jonathan Keith said...

In all fairness I think you should invite the gelato girl to post a response. :)

Lick Me Everywhere International Ice Cream Blog said...

This is a fabulous, albeit sad, story, well-told. I am an ice cream maniac (I run an international ice cream blog, Lick Me Everywhere) and I run into this problem all the time. It is the evolutionary precursor to the "only one flavor in a small" policy, which I also abhor. In an ideal world, ice cream would be sold by weight and we could put as many flavors as we want, in the amounts that we want, into one cup or cone and pay for the amount of product we're getting. I realize this takes more effort on the part of the scooper but this is also an opportunity for us to tip generously. -Anna

kim fabricius said...

I'm reminded of the true story of the clothes shop that allowed the customer to take only two items into the changing room at a time. This customer wanted to buy a three-piece suit, but the salesman strictly enforced the shop's policy, so the guy had to see how the suit fitted and looked two-thirds at a time. A Kantian? I'd change the first vowel.

roger flyer said...

I like Gelato girl's fortitude.

I would have caved under your persistence and charm, Ben. And then I would have been fired by the bean counting boss.

On the other hand, as a shop owner myself, I know how the slip shod handling of the cost of goods can kill you.

Karl Hand said...

I think you may have misinterpreted Kant.

But I also think I am taking this FAR too seriously.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, reminds me of the Nanny State who knows what's best for us all. Nasty capitalistic freedom to choose might be bad for others as well. Can't wait for more of that kind of thing here in the States. Things will be so much better.

Anonymous said...

The only problem, Anna, is that most customers will not tip you extra if going the extra mile becomes part of the business norm. The world is full of depraved tightwads...and it saddens me to say it, but the church has not avoided this particularly fiendish bit of incurved'ness (cf. the colloquial term "Sunday Tippers")

roger flyer said...


The church folk are the worst tippers, and it used to sadden me, but now I accept it. In my experience, church 'folk' are no better, in many cases, maybe even worse in many ways, than the 'worldly' folk.

What does THAT mean for those inchrist?

Emerson said...

Well, it means that we better place a heavier emphasis on salvation extra nos!

roger flyer said...

@Emerson. Yes, perhaps you're right.

Anonymous said...

As someone who worked in the hospitality industry in North America, I can tell you that we would rather have "Sunday Tippers" than "Aussie Tippers."

Anonymous said...

How about taking a risk..., that's the beauty of life..., nothings for certain..., detach the umbilical cord from your rich parents and dare to risk.., even when it comes to ice-cream! In simple terms "Grow up!"

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