Blue Bell Ice Cream, a tastier part of Texas history

March 18, 2007

My first visit to Texas in the early 1980s, to visit friends in Houston and in-laws in Dallas, I met Blue Bell Ice Cream. It was love at first bite, of course.

Bluebell Creamery's ad, barn and blue sky

Blue Bell Creamery ad, barn and blue sky, and their memorable slogan

Ice cream plays an important role in my family. Family reunions, or just any celebration in summer, were excuses to pull out several hand-cranked ice cream makers, and freeze away. Homemade vanilla delights the palate, and family gourmands grind vanilla beans to add a little extra oomph. When grandfather Leo Stewart had peaches from his orchard, or later just peaches from our backyard tree in Pleasant Grove, Utah, fresh peaches went into the mix. Only someone who experienced my father’s peaches in my mother’s custard, frozen in a hand-cranked freezer, could fully appreciate Willie Stark‘s lines about peach ice cream in Robert Penn Warren’s book, All the King’s Men.

White Mountain 6-quart hand crank ice cream freezer

White Mountain 6-quart hand crank ice cream freezer, one of the better freezers

Homemade ice cream is a bother. Better freezers are not cheap, and they don’t travel well. My mother’s mini-freezer disappeared sometime in one of her later-life moves. My father’s much larger, two-gallon colossus simply wore out, with most of the ferrous metal parts rusting away, and even the wood of the barrel crumbling to dust. Proper salt to get the solution colder than freezing is sporadically available in city supermarkets. My mother’s recipe for the custard, unwritten as all her better recipes, died with her.

Bluebell Peaches and Homemade Vanilla

Bluebell Peaches and Homemade Vanilla

Utah is a haven for ice cream makers. Snelgrove’s on 33rd South in Salt Lake City is tradition in many families (Snelgrove is now owned by Dreyer’s, but still operates as Snelgrove in Utah) (Update, July 2008: Snelgrove’s is dead). My wife’s family is partial to Farr’s in Ogden, “Farr better ice cream” — and it is very, very good. Trips to visit family include stops at Farr’s.

Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla tastes like my mother’s custard frozen in a hand-cranked freezer. It is consistently the best-tasting ice cream, for a very reasonable price.

Blue Bell celebrates its 100th anniversary as a company in 2007, the “little creamery” in Brenham, Texas, where Blue Bell is made.

Even better, the company wants you to suggest new flavors, and is holding a contest to get good, local flavors. Winners of the Taste of the Country Flavor Contest get a trip to Brenham for the 100th anniversary celebration.

Plus, winners get a year’s supply of Blue Bell ice cream.

Blue Bell is a nice local company making good. Though the production is limited (and I believe it is still true that all the ice cream is made in Brenham), so it is available only in 17 states concentrated in the southeast, the brand is the third best-selling brand in the U.S.

If you’re near Houston, you would be well advised to make a side trip to Brenham to tour the Blue Bell ice cream factory (plus, the bluebonnets will be in bloom shortly).

North America is a big continent, with international brands that work for international consistency of products, so that the company’s customers get the same experience regardless where the customers are — think McDonalds, Burger King, and Coca-Cola. Large conglomerates often own even nominally regional brands. As I noted earlier, Snelgrove’s in Salt Lake City is now run by a national ice cream giant — even Ben & Jerry’s brand is now owned, produced and marketed by a national marketing giant. Blue Bell is a standout, an almost-local brand, with limited distribution. Part of the joy of a well-working free enterprise system is finding a well-run local company, with a unique product.

Blue Bell could make a fortune bottling their success formula, too, in addition to their ice cream.

Bluebell logo

Glen Dromgoole at the Abilene Reporter-News reviewed the book about Blue Bell’s history in his column February 18, 2007, “Blue Bell Ice Cream, a Texas Staple, Turns 100.”

Berlin Wall’s 45th

August 13, 2006

August 13, 2006, is the 45th “anniversary” of the erection of the Berlin Wall, the totem of the Cold War that came down in 1989, pushing the end of the Cold War. Residents of Berlin awoke on this day in 1961 to find the communist government of East Germany erecting what would become a 96-mile wall around the “western quarters” of the city — not so much to lay siege to the westerners (that had been tried in 1948, frustrated by the Berlin Airlift) as to keep easterners from “defecting” to the West. The Brandenburg Gate was closed on August 14, and all crossing points were closed on August 26.

From 1961 through 1991 1989, teachers could use the Berlin wall as a simple and clear symbol for the differences between the communist Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union and her satellite states, and the free West, which included most of the land mass of Germany, England, France, Italy, the United States and other free-market nations — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. I suspect most high school kids today know very little about the Wall, why it was there, and what its destruction meant, politically.

This era of history is generally neglected in high school. Many courses fail to go past World War II; in many courses the Cold War is in the curriculum sequenced after the ACT, SAT and state graduation examinations, so students and teachers have tuned out.

But the Wall certain had a sense of drama to it that should make for good lessons. When I visited the wall, in early 1988, late at night, there were eight fresh wreaths honoring eight people who had died trying to cross the Wall in the previous few weeks (in some places it was really a series of walls with space in between to make it easier for the East German guards to shoot people trying to escape) — it’s an image I never forget. Within a year after that, East Germans could travel through Hungary to visit the West, and many “forgot” to return. Within 18 months the wall itself was breached.

The Wall was a great backdrop for speeches, too — President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in June 1963, and expressed his solidarity with the walled-in people of both West and East Berlin, with the memorable phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner, which produced astounding cheers from the tens of thousands who came to hear him. There are a few German-to-English translators who argue that some of the reaction was due to the fact that “Berliner” is also an idiomatic phrase in Berlin for a bakery confection like a jelly doughnut — so Kennedy’s words were a double entendre that could mean either “I am a citizen of Berlin,” or “I am a jelly doughnut.”  [Be sure to see the comments below, from Vince Treacy (9/28/2010).]  Ronald Reagan went to the same place Kennedy spoke to the Berlin Wall, too, to the Brandenburg Gate, in his famous June 1987 speech which included a plea to the Soviet Union’s Premier Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Construction of the Berlin Wall, photol collected by Corey S. Hatch

Construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 –photo from University of Utah, by Corey Hatch.

Update March 9, 2007: Berlin Airlift information and lesson plans are available from the Truman Library, here, here and here.

Update November 9, 2009: Notes on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall

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