From foul combat snacks to forbidden cones and fruit-based sophistication, the most sought-after sugary snacks of his childhood still hold a special place in John Summers’ heart.
Childhood is always summer in recollection, and so came with the hope of ice cream, of jandals slapping on dry pavement in the direction of the dairy. There we could discover the latest offerings from TipTop, from Streets, from New American and from whoever made the things that went into the waxy white bags of 50 cent and dollar mixture. Inflation has made the former almost extinct, but back then, in the early 90s, they were the gateway to infinite combinations of sugar, ice and milk solids. We weren’t paying for the dentist.
At one point, GI Joe brought out an ice cream. The packaging for this was a martial olive green and the ice cream itself was camouflage, ideal for when you needed a frozen treat behind enemy lines (“For God’s sake put that Fruju away! Are you trying to get us all killed?”). The flavour seemed to be camouflage too, if such a thing is possible, a sort of undefinable and disgusting chemical taste. However, as a boy who owned several GI Joes and had a fixation on all things army, I had no choice but to eat many of these foul combat snacks.
Batman introduced us to trading cards, each holding a glossy image from the film with a plot synopsis on the back. The pictures of Jack Nicholson, his face wrenched into a grin, scared me. Kim Basinger was pretty. Was Batman a goody? Hard to tell from Michael Keaton’s brooding eyes. These cards came wrapped with a stick of stiff, waxy pink gum. The smell lingered on the cards long after it had been chewed, and I, a junior Proust, would take them out and sniff them from time to time, thinking of the gum of days past. With the release of Batman Returns, the grotesque and strange sequel, we were introduced to something new again: cards without gum. Their silvery cellophane packet was a thing of beauty, and could be torn open to reveal those cards, glossier, slicker than those for the first film, and nothing more than that. For this reason, my local dairy refused to stock them. It was immoral, unethical somehow to drop the pretence of selling gum, the owner told us. We pressured mum to drive us to a dairy in a suburb over, where morals were loose.
Trumpets were the most high stakes of all ice creams, forbidden to me, my mother said, because I might choke on the peanuts scattered across the top. “You’ll choke on the nuts” was a constant refrain for many years, because desperately I wanted this forbidden fruit. Who wouldn’t – they were the frozen dessert of luxury and class, one of the few ice cream treats marketed to adults in those pre-Magnum days. I have since learned that price was the real reason they were off limits – we were not wealthy people, and the Trumpet was the dearest of all. But that fear of nuts was very real to me. One day, Mum won tickets to a Chinese circus act. Acrobats climbed ladders held in mid-air, they juggled knives, and one put a cigarette in his mouth only for another to cut it in half with a flick of a bull whip. But equally daring were the kids I watched in row three, both wolfing Trumpets without care or worry, two Evel Knievels of ice cream.
The ice cream cake was a fixture of many a birthday party. It was blue, and that most foul of flavours: bubble gum. No doubt adults regarded it as the choice of the lazy parent. Preparation was as simple as turning it out of a carton, one solid piece, a giant lump of sweet, sweet ice cream, and on top you stuck the decoration, a cameo of a laughing clown. This decoration was solid sugar, technically edible. I never saw it consumed but heard rumours that someone once did, and I imagine that it rests, only slightly smaller, in their gut still, the sugar very gradually leeching out day by day, giving them an energy and drive that is the envy of their colleagues.
My mother’s favourite was the Joy Bar, a stickless, chocolate-coated ice cream in a silvery and red wrapper. Maybe Mum’s preference was a factor, but for me it had zero appeal. It was the fuddy duddy of treats. The name alone seemed quaint – this was the era of bombastic expressions: “awesome”, “rad” and even, if the circumstances called for it, “cowabunga”. Joy was too gentle an expectation. Compounding this was the Joy Bar’s filling, which was simply ice cream and a kind of jam – the most modest pleasure possible, an old person’s idea of indulgence, which is maybe why, as I near middle age, I now find myself looking wistfully into the dairy freezer from time to time, hoping to spot a Joy Bar. I have yet to see one and in their place are the sorts of gaudy treats I would have liked as a kid. The simple joy of cream and jam is all but lost. The barbarians won. And standing beside the freezer, I reflect that I have lived on both sides of this small culture war.
The Boomy was three fruits, a lemon, an orange and a strawberry, each perfectly rendered in flavoured ice and spread along a popsicle stick. It came out as I was in my final years of primary school, ready to head off to high school, and felt appropriate to this time of transition. Although it was an ice block still, those realistic fruit shapes and the fact that it was made with real juice made it seem sophisticated, more grown up, the right choice for those final days of childhood.
These were the final days, too, of the dairy as nexus of the neighbourhood. It had been a gold mine, home to all those delicious things. Again and again I had returned, had turned over couch cushions, poked hands into the crevice where the two parts of the car seat meet, desperate and forever hopeful of small change, something that existed only to be exchanged for lollies and sweets and ice blocks, those three ways to spell memory. The past is another country, a frozen continent, its peaks heaped sugar.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.