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Cult of the creemee

05/05/03 12:00AM By Philip Baruth
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To be honest, most creemee stands aren't even stands, just a shuttered window off to one side of the gas station or the pizza joint or the hardware store. But when those shutters fold back, no matter how small or make-shift the operation, man, it's a breathtaking and lovely thing!

You hand in a single dollar bill, and they hand you out this thing that is not an ice cream cone - let's be up front about that - but some remarkably perfect frozen dessert product that began life as a powder or a milk-mix kind of thing. But you don't even care. In fact, you admire this in the creemee - that it's raised from its packaged elements by pure Yankee ingenuity. It's something just this side of transubstantiation.

For a while last summer, the convenience store where I buy my gas was giving away a free creemee with every gas purchase over $10, and it was like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes: an empty gas tank created, out of nowhere, a big cold handful of creemee. Not just once, but all summer long. Driving suddenly equaled eating, and for once being an American and being a Vermonter were in complete harmony with one another.

And by the way, that's four e's in creemee, no less. For decades there's been a simmering feud about whether to use just a single first 'e' but I'm a purist, and for me four e's is purity. And replacing any of these four mandatory e's with a's or i's, God forbid, is just to misunderstand the whole concept. The word with all those e's was created to describe this thing and only this thing, not to also serve as an adjective that might apply to pudding or frosting. Those four e's are a visual scream of ecstasy, and dropping one or two of them is like dropping the word "French" from in front of the word "kiss."

So never less than four e's, never less, but more? Once, only once, in the 10 years that I've lived in Vermont have I run across a six-e creeemeee, once at a tiny stand out in West Addison almost at the foot of the big bridge to New York. I shot by and slammed on the brakes, then backed it up and counted the e's. The kid behind the counter kept glancing nervously up and down the road, like a moonshiner or a ticket scalper. He handed me a chocolate-vanilla swirl. I reached out my dollar to him but when he went to take it, I pulled it just out of his reach. "How do I know there's six-e's in there?" I asked. The kid didn't even flinch. "Knowing it ain't gonna be the problem, buddy. Handling it's gonna be the problem." And he was right. It made normal four-e creemees seem almost, well, lumpy by comparison, and I never did make it over the bridge to New York. I got to that final sweet bite, the sweet, sodden last of the cone, and suddenly leaving Vermont for any amount of time, for any reason just seemed deeply unsatisfying.

Very, very old Vermonters will tell you that somewhere - they never agree on where, Lincoln or Walcott or Brandon - but somewhere in the hills out there there's a seven-e creemee. If there is I hope I never meet it because, frankly, a man can only take so much pleasure before he ceases to be a man, and becomes instead a beast. And I'd worry about the loss of balance, that perfect yin-yang symmetry with which Vermonters order the universe of their summers.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.
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