Features
Laura Seitz/Deseret Morning News

The ice cream man

Career | John Harrison has a gold spoon, a silver tongue, and a taste for butterfat

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

John Harrison pulls a gold spoon from his shirt pocket and dips it into a container of vanilla ice cream. He brings the spoonful to his mouth, turns it upside down to place the ice cream directly onto his tongue so it can connect with the 10,000 taste buds that tell him if the ice cream batch is balanced and consistent. He smacks the ice cream in his mouth, drives the bouquet of tastes and smells up through his nostrils and olfactory nerve, then lets five seconds pass before evaluating and critiquing the dessert.

Harrison is the Official Taste Tester for America's largest ice cream company, Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream. He has tasted and approved over 200 million gallons of ice cream. And because of his talent, his tongue is insured for $1 million.

"To my knowledge, I'm the first national spokesperson on ice cream, which is the No. 1 dessert in the country," Harrison says. With final say on the Nestlé-owned Dreyer's ice cream products, including Edy's Grand ice cream and Häagen-Dazs, Harrison credits the 150-plus-year-old dessert industry for giving him his fame.

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After 7,000 radio interviews, 3,000 TV interviews, and 300 newspaper and magazine interviews, the slightly heavyset, balding, gray-haired man chuckles about his popularity: "I talk a lot about ice cream."

Some people might call his occupation a sweet job, but Harrison calls ice cream testing a huge responsibility. During last year alone, Dreyer's gave away half a million gallons of ice cream because it did not live up to its high flavor standards for retail sale.

"If the product's not right, you gotta call it," he says. "Ice cream companies have closed down in the past because of flavor mistakes."

On a normal testing day Harrison begins work at 7:30 a.m. while his taste buds are fresh. About 60 packages await him and he uses a special method to taste his way through all of them: "Sort of like a wine taster, I start with the white wines of ice cream-Vanilla, French Vanilla, Vanilla Bean, Double Vanilla-and then work my way up to the heavy Bordeaux-Mint Chocolate Chip, Black Walnut."

Harrison removes the lid from a carton of ice cream and slices the container down the middle with a long knife to fold it open. He first looks for consistency in the ice cream's appearance, whether the cookies are distributed properly in Cookies 'N Cream, for example. Next, he pokes a thermometer into the ice cream to ensure that it's the correct temperature for tasting. Ice cream is normally kept at about 5 degrees above zero, but Harrison tastes it at 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit; if it is too cold it can deaden the taste buds. He uses a gold spoon because plastic and wood have a resin taste, and silver tarnishes.

To allow each flavor to reach a "top note bouquet aroma in the nostrils," Harrison has a three-step process he follows once the ice cream is in his mouth: He swirls, smacks, and then spits. A 55-gallon plastic receptacle on wheels follows him down the line of ice creams to facilitate that last aspect, which many people find surprising.

"Spitting that stuff out is not easy," says Harrison. Yet if he swallowed the ice cream he would quickly become too full to continue. "Sort of like after eating that huge Thanksgiving turkey dinner-who is ready for dessert?"

The ice cream taster, 67, lives with his wife in Palm Desert, Calif., but travels all over the country to train taste testers at other Dreyer's and Edy's plants. Each plant has a No. 1 taster and a backup taster, whom Harrison trains for each new product and flavor. He also makes appearances in major markets to sample what local retailers have on the shelves. Routinely checking the specific quality of the product in stores is also important to ensure consistency nationwide.

"Take Butter Pecan, for example. Too many pecans is just as bad as not enough. It has to be the same everywhere, every day. That's my job. To make sure the quality and consistency is there."

Harrison finds that having a $1 million tongue is a real maintenance issue. He drinks herbal decaf tea to cleanse his palate every day, and during the week he avoids onions, garlic, caffeine, or anything else that clogs his taste buds. He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink alcohol, and stays away from spicy foods.

Harrison says the difference between his own taste buds and everyone else's can be summed up in one word-experience: "From the olfactory nerve in the forehead, to the nostrils and tongue, we all have the same equipment; mine is just trained. I learned at an early age about creams and sugars and grew up working in every aspect of ice cream." He's an expert at distinguishing the bases of taste in dairy products-sweet, sour, bitter, salty-and his taste buds are so fine-tuned he can immediately taste the difference between 12-percent and 11.5-percent butterfat in a product.

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