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The ice cream man

"The ice cream man" Continued...

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

Danielle Reed, a taste geneticist with the Monell Chemical Senses Center, agrees that Harrison's taste buds have probably developed from putting so much effort into learning and appreciating the nuances of dairy products, but she says there are some genetic advantages that influence precision tasting. "If you're color-blind, no matter what you do you can't see color," she points out, "but if you already have good vision you can train your eyes to see details more clearly."

Flavor is the combination of what a person tastes, what they smell, and the sensations that are interpreted for the brain by the olfactory nerve above the nostrils. If someone wants to get into a tasting career, he can learn these nuances through a college degree in dairy science or food science, but that is not how America's foremost ice cream taster got started.

In 1880, Harrison's great-grandfather opened two candy and ice cream parlors in New York City. His grandfather started the first dairy co-op in Tennessee. His father owned a dairy ingredient company in Atlanta. Even his uncle had an ice cream factory in Memphis.

After finishing school Harrison did not want to stay in the ice cream business. He wanted to be a doctor or lawyer-go in any direction except staying in the business he had grown up in. But Harrison made a U-turn: "God called me when I got out of the dairy industry and said, 'Get back in the business I trained you up in.'" Three days later Dreyer's called to ask him to be their taste tester. "Thirty-nine years ago I put my future in God's hands and He has never disappointed me. God has put me in my position. Anytime He's ready for me to leave, I'll be out and on to something better."

When Harrison began working for Dreyer's in 1980, the company was valued at $2 million but was acquired by Nestlé in 2003 for $2.7 billion.

Being the most popular ice cream man in America has its drawbacks. Harrison says it is very easy to be puffed up and say 'look at me, look at what I've done.' He tries to stay humble by focusing on the needs of others. He has been involved for the last 25 years in state prison ministries, and instead of vacationing he spends his summer weeks away from work with his wife in Portugal volunteering at the Greater Lisbon Christian Academy. Serving in Christian ministry helps him keep his priorities in focus, he says, instead of being wrapped up in his own accomplishments.

During the last 27 years, the ice cream guru has helped create over 70 flavors, including New York Blueberry Cheesecake, French Silk, and the ever-popular Cookies 'N Cream. He wondered what cookies would taste like in ice cream, so he went to the store, purchased Oreos, Hydrox, Lorna Doones, and a half-dozen other packages of cookies, and mixed them in vanilla ice cream one by one until he found the Oreo combination that became the fastest-growing new flavor in the history of ice cream. Harrison says he is always trying to think of something new: "I go to bed at night with a pad of paper and pencil next to my bed."

Not all flavor ideas make it to the retails shelves, however. "Fire and Ice" was a failed attempt at jalapeno pepper ice cream because it sent two competing signals: hot and cold. An old wives' tale about expectant mothers always craving pickles or ice cream birthed an attempt at "Pickles 'N Cream." Harrison laughs about the failures. "While some testers did come back for more, the bottom line is, we like our pickles, we like our ice cream, but not together."

Harrison admits that his developed taste buds affect some of his food choices. He has a greater appreciation for subtle differences, whether it is in mashed potatoes, meat loaf, or different ingredients and toppings. "It affects where I go to eat," he says. "And those establishments don't have to be a $100-a-meal. There are $20-a-meal restaurants where there is consistency and quality."

For dessert, the man with the $1 million tongue chooses an ice cream like some diners choose a wine:

"If you're going to have Mexican food, or Italian food with a lot of garlic, then you don't want to have vanilla ice cream, so you'd choose a heavier flavor like black walnut or even mint chocolate chip. Lemon ice cream or sorbet goes great with seafood."

Ice cream tasting has become more complex as new flavors have been created and more ingredients have been added, such as in double fudge brownie or peanut butter cup, so Harrison continues to perfect his discernment and appreciation for all the unique ingredients. Yet even after all his years of sampling and critiquing countless spoonfuls of ice cream products, John Harrison remains a purest about what he loves to dip his golden spoon into when he's off the job:

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