Vanilla ice cream is hard to master. It’s a subtle flavor, at once earthy, floral, and sweet. Different companies produce varied results when combining it with cream, milk, and sugar to make the frozen treat. Lesser brands lose the vanilla flavor completely when the taste of the cardboard carton seeps in.
I’ve always preferred Blue Bell’s Homemade Vanilla for its distinctive vanilla-forward taste. Could it be because the Brenham business doesn’t use egg yolks in its recipe while most other companies do? Or is it because I’ve always associated it with sticky summer nights by the pool and getting an A-plus on a report card?
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and it makes even more of an impact when paired with your tastebuds. My childhood was defined by the subtle wood flavoring lent to every bite of Homemade Vanilla and Dutch Chocolate by the spoon attached to the tiny cups. My teen years consisted of hanging out with my friends, getting only one scoop on a waffle cone because a second would melt from the heat of the gossip.
But then came the 2015 listeria contamination that caused three deaths and at least ten related illnesses. I was in high school at the time, and as the news hit the halls, we talked about which brand we’d give our loyalty next, sure that the company couldn’t survive. Turns out, our cafeteria continued to serve those Blue Bell cups anyway. The company took a year hiatus, and in 2020, its former CEO Paul Kruse was charged with wire fraud and conspiracy in connection with an alleged cover up of the outbreak; the case ended in a mistrial in August. A new trial had been set for April, but the parties reached a plea deal earlier this month, with fraud charges dropped and Kruse pleading guilty to a misdemeanor carrying a fine of $100,000.
In 2016, after its hiatus, Blue Bell released Cookie Two Step. I remember my mom sending me the link to the announcement about the new specialty flavor that would be a combination of cookie dough ice cream and cookies and cream ice cream. As we made the pilgrimage to the grocery store to hunt down the bright blue half-gallon carton, we were surprised to find it was sold out. I guess the listeria concerns had worn off for our local shoppers. (A few months after its debut, Cookie Two Step was recalled “out of an abundance of caution,” but it returned to shelves in 2017.)
Once I did get to try it, it turned out to be one of my favorite flavors of all time. Blue Bell continues to release interesting new flavors, from Oatmeal Cream Pie to its latest, I Heart Cereal. No matter what new concoction the team comes up with, the always-delicious foundation makes it so good.
I’m technically lactose intolerant; whether I follow that code is my own prerogative. With that being said, queso and ice cream are my vices. If I’m going to reach for the dairy nectar of the gods, it will be Blue Bell. Why waste the calories on a dairy-free option that just won’t be the same?
My family agrees: one year we forgot the ice cream to pair with my grandma’s pie at a family gathering. The reaction was swift and fierce. Dad and I jumped in the truck, went to the nearest gas station, and perused the options: all Blue Bell flavors. We grabbed her favorite, Homemade Vanilla, and my dad complained about the price all the way to the counter.
“Only the best for grandma,” the cashier said with a smile. We nodded in agreement.