March 7, 2010

'Ice Cream Theory' piled with scoops of personal insights


"The Ice Cream Theory" is a cozy, upbeat book that tells us a lot about people -- vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, even pistachio -- and how we often interact. Most of all, it offers fresh, insightful looks at ourselves. Seldom has a book with ice cream as its central metaphor been so endearingly warm.


"THE ICE CREAM THEORY." A nonfiction book by Steff Deschenes. Paperback. 273 Pages. Self-published. $15.99.

The author, Steff Deschenes of Lewiston, describes herself as "a self-taught ice-cream guru," and her discoveries at home and on the road in this country and Europe bear her out.

She spent about six years working on "The Ice Cream Theory." Rarely does a self-help book aimed at sharpening our insights come together so well.

Let's start with the journey that led Deschenes to a very special gift -- an ice-cream maker -- one Christmas.

"Upon opening the box of my new toy, I suddenly foresaw myself as the next 'big thing' in ice cream," she tells us. "If two hippies from Vermont with no formal education could do it, or if some guy from New York could make up two words that looked European but, well, were just made-up words to start his company, then surely I, a slightly obsessive-compulsive ice-cream overeater and wannabe theologian, could do it."

Like many youthful ambitions, that's pretty much where the story of "Steff Deschenes, Ice Cream Entrepreneur" begins -- and ends.

"It died such a nice thought," Deschenes recalls. "I have made ice cream exactly a dozen times since getting the maker. Life, as it has a habit of doing, has simply gotten in the way and has prevented me from becoming the 'next big thing' in ice-cream making." It has not stopped her, however, from looking at ice cream in new and insightful ways.

Take pistachio, for instance. "Pistachio ice cream to me has always been associated with family," she writes. "My grandfather loved pistachio ice cream. It was his favorite flavor. And although he was diabetic, it was his choice treat when cheating on his diet. If pistachio ice cream were a person, trust me when I tell you, it would be him."

OK, so grandfather liked pistachio and Deschenes assigns the flavor to him. Oops, not so fast, the author insists. That's not how her theory works. "Your favorite flavor of ice cream," she emphasizes, "is not the flavor you metaphorically are."

Looking more closely at pistachio ice cream, she assigns it certain qualities. "It is one of the ice creams I believe is true to its ingredients and, furthermore, a constant, solid flavor -- it doesn't vary too much from brand to brand. It's a mellow flavor, nothing over-the-top or confusing about it, and it's its simplicity that I think is appreciated and celebrated by fans. Pistachio ice cream does not try and hide the fact that it's pistachio."

People, she writes, frequently share with her the flavor they believe sums up their personality and place in the world. Sometimes the flavor they cite is rum raisin. Not a great choice, Deschenes counsels. Rum raisin, she writes, "is not a flavor you want to be. Rum raisin wants to be the life of the party, but it can't be. And it never will be."

If that seems like a harsh assessment, Deschenes goes on to explain. "Most companies, you realize, are too cheap to put any real rum in their ice cream, so it's an artificial flavoring. If you're the kind of person who thinks they are way cooler than they actually are, and, for the most part, are pretty much fake and shallow, then, yeah, I guess you might be rum raisin."

Now there's a summary to send rum-raisin claimants running for high ground and new flavors. "You can't be the flavor of ice cream you like the most," Deschenes sums up. "It just doesn't work that way."

Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe sometimes, maybe never. But we're playing by Deschenes' rules here and in her self-published "The Ice Cream Theory" she's calling the shots -- shots of peanut butter cups, raspberry candies, nuts and new-age additions like birthday cake and cookie dough.

Deschenes relates all of these to people and friendships she's known. The variety of people flavors and the wit with which she presents them is appealing, if not always convincing.

Pick up "The Ice Cream Theory" together with a pint of some special flavor, and see where they take you. The journey is bound to be pleasant.


Nancy Grape writes book reviews for the Maine Sunday Telegram.


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