First, let us consider butterfat: Simply to utter those three low-slung syllables feels deliciously naughty, a mockery of popular scripture about good (as in virtuous) food. If you're even a part-time worshipper at the altar of health-consciousness, the word butterfat may seem embarrassing in its lusty suggestiveness. Yet there it is, proudly crowning the manifesto of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, emblazoned on a poster that hangs on the wall of the company's new East Nashville store, in plain view of customers who queue up daily to taste, spoon and lick to their heart's content.
For Jeni Britton Bauer, the creative force behind what is arguably the most celebrated ice cream in the country right now, butterfat is a blank canvas on which to explore a palette of exotic, tantalizing flavors: Salty Caramel, Wildberry Lavender, Cherry Lambic, Bangkok Peanut (cayenne pepper, coconut, honey and peanut butter ice cream). Still other flavors display an allegiance to place: Jeni's hails from Columbus, Ohio — hence a flavor called The Buckeye State (a peanut butter and chocolate concoction), and another called Sweet Corn and Black Raspberry, billed as a "taste of Midwestern summer."
A family connection fueled the opening of the first Jeni's store outside the state of Ohio: Bauer's husband's brother left Nashville to join the company some years back. The ice cream first slipped onto the local scene earlier this year when the latest addition to the Bongo Java set, Hot & Cold, began carrying a limited rotating selection. But the recent opening of the East Nashville shop comes at an especially buzzy moment for Jeni's: it coincided with the publication of Bauer's cookbook, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, which last week made The New York Times best-seller list.
The cookbook, which bears the sleek yet homey design aesthetic of the retail shops, features recipes for almost any Jeni's flavor you can dream of, engineered especially for home equipment. (An observation from two trials: The recipes work. Very well.) There are also how-tos for waffle cones, cocktails featuring said ice creams, and sauces. In an introductory essay, Bauer tells the story of how she went from dishing out interesting ice creams when she was "twenty-two years old and had pink hair and lots of ideas and enthusiasm, but little business acumen," to operating seven wildly successful stores and, improbably enough, a thriving nationwide home-delivery operation. Her charmingly written personal narrative touches on a lot of timeless entrepreneurial success themes, but it also presents a business firmly in step with current food trends: artisanal production and locally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients. It's "a true cow-to-cone ice-cream company," as she puts it.
So what does that mean for Jeni's outside the Buckeye State? Will a flavor featuring, say, Benton's bacon join the ranks now that the brand has a Tennessee outpost? We can hope. But on the new store's opening night — as a line of free-ice-cream seekers stretched hundreds of feet through the parking lot in the humid dusk — Bauer greeted her newest customers, and said she didn't plan to send empty trucks back to Ohio: She'd been scouting farms, and Tennessee fruit would certainly make a showing in her ice creams.
Bauer answered questions by phone in anticipation of her July 21 book signing and demonstration at Williams-Sonoma in Green Hills.
It seems to me that ice cream is more decadent, perhaps, than many other sweets. What do you think it is about ice cream that sets it apart?
I'm a huge dessert freak; I love them all. But butterfat — the fat that's in cream — melts perfectly at body temperature. Other fats don't do that. Butterfat absorbs flavor: When you put butter next to an onion, it'll start to taste like an onion. So you can flavor butterfat with all these wonderful things, and then freeze it so the flavor is locked in there, and then it gets released through the warmth of your tongue. Just talking about ice cream like this is extremely emotional, sexy. I feel like that's just so much more wonderful — even though I love cupcakes — than eating a cupcake. And sharing ice cream is one of the best things, too. Everybody gets their own flavor and has a taste of everyone else's flavor. If you're dating someone you might give them a lick off your cone. It's just such a shareable experience.
In the section of your new book called "Jeni's Story," you're pretty frank about some of the hiccups the company experienced along the way. What's the main advice you'd offer a young artisan who's just starting out and has big visions for the future?
The best thing you can do is to start and operate your company on a shoestring. Start at home, or start at a market, like I did. City markets are a great incubator for a business, and every city should have one. Run your business on a shoestring: Put all your money back in. And understand that you're going to make mistakes, but that's OK; keep moving. Just know that it's going to take a long time. I've been at it for 15 years, most of which I was living paycheck to paycheck and driving a beat-up old red truck. You have to go all in on it, but the reward is so great, and even while you're in it, it's such a wonderful thing to do. You meet so many people, and it's just a beautiful life. You have to work a lot. Never think that you're going to spend more time with your family if you start a business, because you're definitely going to spend less. You have to be very structured. Build your market very slowly, and really do try to make something that's different, and unique, or find a twist on it.
As for the cookbook, how does it, too, do things differently?
If you look at all the other ice cream books on the market, they all start with basically the same recipe, which is a custard recipe, or occasionally you'll find a Philadelphia-style ice cream, which I don't like; it's kind of icy. Even the custard style is icy on a home machine. Even the top chefs' books have that same basic recipe that they learned in cooking school, and it really doesn't work at home very well. So instead of starting with the recipe that everyone uses, I started with the texture that I wanted to achieve. I wanted it to be smooth and creamy and scoopable. I tried to start backwards from what I wanted to achieve, and create a recipe around that.
And that meant no eggs, which are found in custard-style ice cream.
We don't use eggs in our kitchen. I wasn't going to put a book out that didn't actually match what I create in my kitchen. I wanted to make sure that you could get that same texture. Often, when companies [or restaurants] put out cookbooks, their ice cream that you can make at home is very different from what they sell in the store. And that disappointed me. If I'm using Thomas Keller's book, I want to be able to make it as close to what I actually get in his restaurant as possible.
You chose Nashville for your first store outside of Ohio in part because of your brother-in-law's connection to the city. But why East Nashville specifically? Green Hills and Franklin so often, um, scoop up the big-name businesses from out of town.
There's no doubt that East Nashville fits our personality better than anywhere else. We like emerging, artistic, bohemian neighborhoods; that's where we feel most at home. In Columbus, we have the Short North, and that's where we feel the most freedom to do what we want to do. For us, and for my personality, East Nashville gives us the freedom to be as creative as we want to be, and that was the No. 1 most important thing for us.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and some terrific local book coverage — visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
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