I finally got the call that I’d been waiting for, the one I’ve been training for since graduate school, when I really perfected my craft of eating ice cream: I was asked to be a judge for the 2nd annual RI Food Fights Best Scoop Shop contest.
Just a little background: RI Food Fights is, at heart, a celebration of Rhode Island’s culinary offerings. Founded by Jim Nellis, this organization sponsors multiple events throughout the year that allow the people of RI to experience new restaurants, chefs, and bakeries. Some events, like the Cookie Smackdown (for which I was also a judge), take place in one location on a specific day; people buy tickets, artisans set up booths, and ticket holders sample the best-of-the-best in one afternoon. Then they vote for the “People’s Choice,” and The Judges award their own 1st and 2nd place winners.
In addition to this, there are also passport events that have themes (Best Pizza, Best Burger, Best Calamari, Best Iced Coffee), and with a purchase of a passport (usually $20), one gets free coupons for these items at 15-40 locations, which are good for an entire month. It’s an amazing deal! But it’s not for the faint of stomach. I’ve never eaten so many burgers in my life as I did in the spring of 2015. It might have taken a few months off of my life, but I think it was worth it.
[For the entire background on RI Food Fights and an interview with Jim Nellis, you can listen to this stellar podcast created by two awesome guys who also interviewed me about being a writer!]
In years past, the ice cream contest was held in a similar fashion as the cookie contest: on a single afternoon in June, where ice cream venders would transport their top flavors to a venue and people would sample all of them in bite-sized portions.
THIS IS CHILD’S PLAY.
That’s not true. I’m just a little angsty because I was always out of town in June and never able to attend.
This June, however, I was in Rhode Island, and I eagerly* bought my #BestScoopShopRI passport, and that’s when I got the call.
*somewhat hesitantly, because I knew I would want to eat them all
Jim specified that as a judge, I did not need to visit every location (there were 23 of them), but with the way things naturally work out, at least one judge would be visiting each shop.
While this is nice in theory, I refused to compromise my own standards of judgement integrity and vowed to visit them all**.
**you may also remember that I was the only cookie judge who ate–in their entirety–every single cookie at the Cookie Smackdown.
Here’s a brief look at how I spent the month of June.
To begin, I needed a judging rubric. This is the sort of thing I used as an English teacher, and what I’ve used at each of my RI Food Fight events. It allows me to use consistent criteria for judging, and if I set it up correctly, the ice cream I like the most should score well. (This was validated.)
Quick note about who I am as a person, other than “tenacious”- I always order ice cream in a cup, not a cone, and since this was a contest on the ice cream itself, I went with the unadulterated version. I’m also partial to black raspberry and chocolate peanut butter cup.
Like No Udder (Providence; also a Food Truck)
This place serves vegan ice cream, which seems like an oxymoron, but they taught me not to judge an ice cream by its dairy content. I’d heard great things from friends, but even though the shop is within a half-mile of my house, I hadn’t yet visited. Based simply on proximity, this was my first stop.
While I contemplated the display case, the two people in front of me ordered Thai Iced Tea, a flavor that would have never have occurred to me to try, but when the staff replied, “It’s one of our most popular flavors,” I thought, Okay. Let’s see what this is about.
Verdict: It. Is. Amazing! This coconut-milk-based ice cream is worth becoming vegan for (for, like, a day). Bonus: they used compostable spoons.
I had a partner in crime, and we hit up two shops that day. We were hoping for three, but the ones we’d been considering weren’t open on a Tuesday.
Udder Delights (Cranston; also in Coventry)
Similar pun, different concept: this is traditional ice cream from a company based in Connecticut. They had ice cream and soft serve and a menu board so extensive, I was lost. Then the kind staff let Jeremy and I sample half of their inventory. I landed on White Russian–a creative flavor and I was channeling my inner Dude.
(this is the only one not pictured; I was evidently too focused on the really beautiful cow artwork on the walls because there are three pictures of the cows)
Countryside Creamery (Cranston)
There was a mildly unsettling ice cream cone statue in the seating area that gave off creepy-clown vibes, so I was nervous about this spot. It ended up being in my top five favorites – so creamy! Since I’d already gone with a White Russian that day, I figured I’d remain thematically with alcohol and try Rum Raisin.
I took a trip to the East Bay and after getting lost in the abyss of Barrington Books for TWO HOURS, I came home via Massachusetts.
Eskimo King (Swansea, MA)
So. Many. Flavors. I stood in line for 10 minutes contemplating, letting everyone else go in front of me, and I noticed that every single person ordered soft serve. “Is that most popular?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” the girl working the window said. I asked her about the chocolate raspberry truffle. “That one’s my FAVORITE!” she said, and without further ado, I got Chocolate Raspberry Truffle.
Sundae’s (Seekonk, MA; also in Johnston and Cranston)
Also big on soft serve, but since I’d just had that, I asked the girl at the window (props to the girls at all the windows by the way) what she recommended. She said she really liked the black raspberry chip, which was technically a “hard yogurt,” masquerading itself like ice cream but with fewer calories. “Why not?” I said. I also got chocolate peanut butter cup, same story.
For not being “real” ice cream, I thought it tasted great. Had I not been told it was yogurt, I wouldn’t have known.
To set the stage for waffle: It was 5pm, I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and a friend at one of the local restaurants had just given me three alcoholic beverages to “sample” in preparation for PVD fest. You do the math.
So I wandered in and saw they had a modest selection, twelve or so flavors, and Raspberry Cheesecake was recommended. I love raspberries, but I’m not really a fan of cheesecake, so I received my sample spoon with a certain level of skepticism.
It. Was. Phenomenal. Not only was the flavor remarkable, but the ice cream was so light, almost whipped in texture. I may have heard a choir of angels singing as I ate my scoop (whether due solely to the ice cream or not, only time will tell. But I was happily surprised).
I lost an entire week doing goodness knows what (eating ice cream sandwiches at Knead, maybe?), so I had a lot of catching up to do during this weekend.
Chelsea’s Creamery (Warren)
After hitting up Blount’s Clam Shack in Warren, I was pleased to know that the Yelp hours for Chelsea’s were incorrect! Instead of closing at 8pm, they close at 9 on a Friday night, so I swooped in with plenty of time.
Another vegan ice cream venue. They only serve two flavors at a time, and that day they were Birthday Cake and Mocha Cookie Crunch. I ordered the latter.
I will say – if it weren’t for my love of cheese, being vegan wouldn’t be so bad, especially knowing that Wildflour and Like No Udder were around to satisfy my ice cream urges.
The Family Cake (Providence)
This mom-and-pop run establishment is found in the heart of Olneyville. The person helping us sample all of the ice cream flavors (Warwick Ice Cream, by the way, which is fabulous) was the son of the owners–and simply a delight! He was so kind. His favorite flavor was strawberry cheesecake, and after my success with raspberry cheesecake at Waffle, I gave it a try. ALSO AMAZING. I’m starting to think that angel choir was real.
Jeremy returned on Sunday to join me for scoop shop day, round two. We had three places in mind, but Atomic Blonde Ice Cream Truck pulled out of the food truck event in Burriville–unbeknownst to us–so we were down to two. First stop:
Wright Scoop (North Smithfield)
Part of Wright’s Dairy Farm, this ice cream gave me high hopes. The cows were in the backyard, after all. So I opted for two scoops, Black Raspberry Chip (naturally) as well as one of their core flavors, Compost Cream (vanilla cream with pecans, magic bars, congo bars and a ganache swirl).
The only way to describe this ice cream is in all caps BECAUSE IT WAS THE EPITOME OF ICE CREAM DREAMS.
It topped my rubric chart.
U Scream (North Providence)
I admit, they had a tough act to follow. I sampled a couple of different flavors, but ultimately landed with black raspberry yet again. Jeremy opted for a Cherry Chocolate Chip that was neon red and looked like playdough, but did, in fact, taste like chocolate cherries. Their outdoor seating is covered by a canopy, which was perfect since it had started to rain.
Camo Creamery (Attleboro, MA)
Evidently grabbing ice cream at 11:30am on a Wednesday morning puts you in a league of your own. I was the only one there when I showed up, although more people followed after I sat down to eat. I sampled the Chocolate Peanut Butter and was impressed by how much peanut butter swirl there was. Despite a few ice crystals, it scored high on flavor.
Lincoln Creamery (Lincoln, RI)
This is where it all began. The first time I ate ice cream in Rhode Island was here at the Lincoln Creamery. The first flavors I tried were Black Raspberry and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup, having copied the exact order of my friend who grew up in Lincoln. And ever since, this has been the standard to which I hold all other ice creams accountable. I love Lincoln Creamery with my whole heart, and of course, I got my standard order.
Now, this is where the race begins. I had 8 stops to go and only a week go get to them, and naturally they were spread out across the far reaches of the state (one of them is actually named, “Next to No Where”). This provided a strategic challenge, which made getting to all of them one of my proudest accomplishments.
Gelina’s Ice Cream (Coventry)
This place was crowded. I barely found a place to sit. At least three separate girls at the window came to attend to my order, despite the business, and I decided to try the Maine Wild Blueberry. I liked it because there were chunks of blueberry lace in there–not just frozen blueberries, but something akin to blueberry fruit roll-up. I found it rather delicious.
Next to Nowhere (Exeter)
This spot truly was on the side of the highway, nestled into the trees. As the sun was setting, I opted for a triefecta of flavors: Aroma Joe’s Peanut Butter Mocha – chocolate, peanut butter, AND coffee? YES PLEASE.
(They had some truly remarkable flavor choices, just FYI)
Diane’s Delectables (Warwick)
This place was hard to track down. I’d visited earlier in the month, only to discover they were closed when Google said they’d be open. Evidently the best way to discover their hours is by texting or calling, as not everything Diane does is located at the shop itself. We coordinated to meet at 12:30 on a Tuesday, and was it worth battling traffic a second time to get there?
Yes, yes it was. If you ever made ice cream at home as a kid, this tastes exactly like that–so creamy. According to Diane, she uses a higher fat content than most ice cream businesses will sell, which probably accounts for its deliciousness. There were only ten flavors, but Coffee Coconut Cashew jumped off the chalkboard. After one taste, I was sold. It was divine.
Atomic Blonde Ice Cream
This was another hard-to-track-down shop as it literally has wheels. This food truck cancelled a couple of events on their schedule, so it was only by a small miracle we were able to cross paths. The concert on the lawn where they were parked on this particular Thursday was a ticketed event, but the people at the gate were kind enough to let me go in for ice cream and leave before the music started (no offense to the band).
They offered six flavors, the basic vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, etc. I think their biggest sell are their sundaes rather than plain scoops of ice cream. I ended up choosing coffee and putting chocolate “jimmies” on top (in New Mexico, we call them sprinkles) because they were self-administered and free! A fun bonus.
Cold Fusion Gelato (Newport)
This is one of the few places I’d visited before, as I once dedicated my blog to finding the best gelato in the world. Thankfully Rhode Island is a lot smaller than the world, and whenever I’m in Newport I stop here. It’s hard to compare ice cream and gelato because they are, in fact, different. I am a gelato girl through and through, and Cold Fusion has the Midas touch for flavor. This time around I got Xanadu: Peanut butter gelato with chocolate chunks and caramel swirls.
It lived up to its poetic name.
Frosty Freez (Middletown)
I’d received a parking ticket in Newport and Frosty Freez was the equivalent of drinking to forget. I sadly don’t remember much, other than sitting on a log on the side of the parking lot because there were no picnic tables, and drowning my sorrows in a kiddie-sized scoop of ice cream.
This was my watering hole that day, my friends.
Inside Scoop (North Kingstown)
Previous winner of RI Food Fights, but my first time visiting, Inside Scoop exceeded my expectations. They had a peanut butter oreo flavor (WHAT) and it blew my mind. So creamy! So delicious! I already told Jeremy about it and determined this will be my post-beach stop from now on.
Swirls and Scoops (South Kingstown)
When I arrived there was no line, so I thoughtfully considered my options. After tasting the cherry blossom, I had flashbacks to London, where I first discovered my love of cherry flavored ice cream. I’d sampled cherry at a couple other stops, but this was by far my favorite.
Pompelmo Gelato (Westerly)
Another gelato stop! Glorious day! This is such a far trek from Providence–yes, I have turned into a Rhode Islander!–but a must-stop whenever I’m in the area. The owner trained in Italy and it has a distinct Italian essence. I got Coconut Moose Tracks and it was a little slice of heaven.
Blackbird Farms (Woonsocket)
Last but not least, Blackbird Farms. Only open Friday-Sunday, this rugged dusty spot, which felt a little like my home in New Mexico, ended the weekend and the month of my greatest ice cream consumption of all time.
Bet you can’t guess what flavor I chose!
And so it ends: my experience as an ice cream judge for RI Food Fights #BestScoopShopRI. I tallied my scores and forwarded them to Jim, noting a three-way tie for third place.
While a judge never reveals her secrets (although I did reveal my judging rubric), I am happy to announce the winners:
People’s Choice went to Lincoln Creamery.
Judges’ Choice went to Wright’s Dairy Farm.
Thanks to RI Food Fights for including my voice in the 2nd Annual Best Scoop Shop challenge! And congratulations to ALL of the participating venues. You made this experience a *Sweet* one for me, and June of 2019 a month to remember.
I wish I could say these scoops are all the ice cream I ate in June, but sadly (or victoriously, depending on your rubric) I ate various other ice creams and sorbets along the way that were not included in RI Food Fights, making this a month to remember.
3 thoughts on “My Life as an Ice Cream Judge”
Thus is amazing!!!
*this—can you tell I’m hungry now? Haha
Thanks, Livia! And had you not pointed out the typo, I wouldn’t have even noticed! Next time you visit we ought to get some ice cream 🙂