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The ice cream man

John Harrison has a gold spoon, a silver tongue, and a taste for butterfat

The ice cream man

John Harrison pulls a gold spoon from his shirt pocket and dips it into a container of vanilla ice cream. He brings the spoonful to his mouth, turns it upside down to place the ice cream directly onto his tongue so it can connect with the 10,000 taste buds that tell him if the ice cream batch is balanced and consistent. He smacks the ice cream in his mouth, drives the bouquet of tastes and smells up through his nostrils and olfactory nerve, then lets five seconds pass before evaluating and critiquing the dessert.

Harrison is the Official Taste Tester for America's largest ice cream company, Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream. He has tasted and approved over 200 million gallons of ice cream. And because of his talent, his tongue is insured for $1 million.

"To my knowledge, I'm the first national spokesperson on ice cream, which is the No. 1 dessert in the country," Harrison says. With final say on the Nestlé-owned Dreyer's ice cream products, including Edy's Grand ice cream and Häagen-Dazs, Harrison credits the 150-plus-year-old dessert industry for giving him his fame.

After 7,000 radio interviews, 3,000 TV interviews, and 300 newspaper and magazine interviews, the slightly heavyset, balding, gray-haired man chuckles about his popularity: "I talk a lot about ice cream."

Some people might call his occupation a sweet job, but Harrison calls ice cream testing a huge responsibility. During last year alone, Dreyer's gave away half a million gallons of ice cream because it did not live up to its high flavor standards for retail sale.

"If the product's not right, you gotta call it," he says. "Ice cream companies have closed down in the past because of flavor mistakes."

On a normal testing day Harrison begins work at 7:30 a.m. while his taste buds are fresh. About 60 packages await him and he uses a special method to taste his way through all of them: "Sort of like a wine taster, I start with the white wines of ice cream-Vanilla, French Vanilla, Vanilla Bean, Double Vanilla-and then work my way up to the heavy Bordeaux-Mint Chocolate Chip, Black Walnut."

Harrison removes the lid from a carton of ice cream and slices the container down the middle with a long knife to fold it open. He first looks for consistency in the ice cream's appearance, whether the cookies are distributed properly in Cookies 'N Cream, for example. Next, he pokes a thermometer into the ice cream to ensure that it's the correct temperature for tasting. Ice cream is normally kept at about 5 degrees above zero, but Harrison tastes it at 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit; if it is too cold it can deaden the taste buds. He uses a gold spoon because plastic and wood have a resin taste, and silver tarnishes.

To allow each flavor to reach a "top note bouquet aroma in the nostrils," Harrison has a three-step process he follows once the ice cream is in his mouth: He swirls, smacks, and then spits. A 55-gallon plastic receptacle on wheels follows him down the line of ice creams to facilitate that last aspect, which many people find surprising.

"Spitting that stuff out is not easy," says Harrison. Yet if he swallowed the ice cream he would quickly become too full to continue. "Sort of like after eating that huge Thanksgiving turkey dinner-who is ready for dessert?"

The ice cream taster, 67, lives with his wife in Palm Desert, Calif., but travels all over the country to train taste testers at other Dreyer's and Edy's plants. Each plant has a No. 1 taster and a backup taster, whom Harrison trains for each new product and flavor. He also makes appearances in major markets to sample what local retailers have on the shelves. Routinely checking the specific quality of the product in stores is also important to ensure consistency nationwide.

"Take Butter Pecan, for example. Too many pecans is just as bad as not enough. It has to be the same everywhere, every day. That's my job. To make sure the quality and consistency is there."

Harrison finds that having a $1 million tongue is a real maintenance issue. He drinks herbal decaf tea to cleanse his palate every day, and during the week he avoids onions, garlic, caffeine, or anything else that clogs his taste buds. He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink alcohol, and stays away from spicy foods.

Harrison says the difference between his own taste buds and everyone else's can be summed up in one word-experience: "From the olfactory nerve in the forehead, to the nostrils and tongue, we all have the same equipment; mine is just trained. I learned at an early age about creams and sugars and grew up working in every aspect of ice cream." He's an expert at distinguishing the bases of taste in dairy products-sweet, sour, bitter, salty-and his taste buds are so fine-tuned he can immediately taste the difference between 12-percent and 11.5-percent butterfat in a product.

Danielle Reed, a taste geneticist with the Monell Chemical Senses Center, agrees that Harrison's taste buds have probably developed from putting so much effort into learning and appreciating the nuances of dairy products, but she says there are some genetic advantages that influence precision tasting. "If you're color-blind, no matter what you do you can't see color," she points out, "but if you already have good vision you can train your eyes to see details more clearly."

Flavor is the combination of what a person tastes, what they smell, and the sensations that are interpreted for the brain by the olfactory nerve above the nostrils. If someone wants to get into a tasting career, he can learn these nuances through a college degree in dairy science or food science, but that is not how America's foremost ice cream taster got started.

In 1880, Harrison's great-grandfather opened two candy and ice cream parlors in New York City. His grandfather started the first dairy co-op in Tennessee. His father owned a dairy ingredient company in Atlanta. Even his uncle had an ice cream factory in Memphis.

After finishing school Harrison did not want to stay in the ice cream business. He wanted to be a doctor or lawyer-go in any direction except staying in the business he had grown up in. But Harrison made a U-turn: "God called me when I got out of the dairy industry and said, 'Get back in the business I trained you up in.'" Three days later Dreyer's called to ask him to be their taste tester. "Thirty-nine years ago I put my future in God's hands and He has never disappointed me. God has put me in my position. Anytime He's ready for me to leave, I'll be out and on to something better."

When Harrison began working for Dreyer's in 1980, the company was valued at $2 million but was acquired by Nestlé in 2003 for $2.7 billion.

Being the most popular ice cream man in America has its drawbacks. Harrison says it is very easy to be puffed up and say 'look at me, look at what I've done.' He tries to stay humble by focusing on the needs of others. He has been involved for the last 25 years in state prison ministries, and instead of vacationing he spends his summer weeks away from work with his wife in Portugal volunteering at the Greater Lisbon Christian Academy. Serving in Christian ministry helps him keep his priorities in focus, he says, instead of being wrapped up in his own accomplishments.

During the last 27 years, the ice cream guru has helped create over 70 flavors, including New York Blueberry Cheesecake, French Silk, and the ever-popular Cookies 'N Cream. He wondered what cookies would taste like in ice cream, so he went to the store, purchased Oreos, Hydrox, Lorna Doones, and a half-dozen other packages of cookies, and mixed them in vanilla ice cream one by one until he found the Oreo combination that became the fastest-growing new flavor in the history of ice cream. Harrison says he is always trying to think of something new: "I go to bed at night with a pad of paper and pencil next to my bed."

Not all flavor ideas make it to the retails shelves, however. "Fire and Ice" was a failed attempt at jalapeno pepper ice cream because it sent two competing signals: hot and cold. An old wives' tale about expectant mothers always craving pickles or ice cream birthed an attempt at "Pickles 'N Cream." Harrison laughs about the failures. "While some testers did come back for more, the bottom line is, we like our pickles, we like our ice cream, but not together."

Harrison admits that his developed taste buds affect some of his food choices. He has a greater appreciation for subtle differences, whether it is in mashed potatoes, meat loaf, or different ingredients and toppings. "It affects where I go to eat," he says. "And those establishments don't have to be a $100-a-meal. There are $20-a-meal restaurants where there is consistency and quality."

For dessert, the man with the $1 million tongue chooses an ice cream like some diners choose a wine:

"If you're going to have Mexican food, or Italian food with a lot of garlic, then you don't want to have vanilla ice cream, so you'd choose a heavier flavor like black walnut or even mint chocolate chip. Lemon ice cream or sorbet goes great with seafood."

Ice cream tasting has become more complex as new flavors have been created and more ingredients have been added, such as in double fudge brownie or peanut butter cup, so Harrison continues to perfect his discernment and appreciation for all the unique ingredients. Yet even after all his years of sampling and critiquing countless spoonfuls of ice cream products, John Harrison remains a purest about what he loves to dip his golden spoon into when he's off the job:

"You can't beat a good bowl of vanilla ice cream."

Jacob Parrish

Jacob Parrish