Food Matters: A social history of Aspen ice cream
IF YOU GO…
Aspen Historical Society Ice Cream Social
Saturday, Aug. 3, 2-4 p.m.
$3 ice cream bowls
$5 Aspen Crud
ASPEN CRUD: THE BUZZIEST ICE CREAM SOCIAL
Though now one of the most iconic concoctions at the Hotel Jerome’s historic J-Bar, the famed Aspen Crud wasn’t originally called a cocktail. Instead, it was a cheat: a sneaky way for hardworking miners to sip whiskey and evade Prohibition laws when the J-Bar was downgraded to a soda fountain during those years (1920-1933). “They’d spike your milkshake with a bottle of bourbon hidden in the wall of the bar,” says former lead bartender Ryan Sterling. Long after Prohibition ended, he adds, “The 10th Mountain Division guys, when training for the war, would come here with the miners and enjoy an Aspen Crud.”
Today’s version: two ounces of Jim Beam in a 14-ounce glass of whipped vanilla ice cream and milk. “Traditionally it was much more than that,” Sterling clarifies. “It was a hard day in the mine—you didn’t want a milkshake, you wanted six ounces of Jim Beam!”
Long before skiing in Aspen, Roaring Fork Valley citizens gathered for another kind of frosty pastime: ice cream socials.
Often paired with a community dance or music performance, the mining-era events were typically held at churches or other public venues during the hottest summer month, when winter ice stores at Hallam Lake and three additional “ice houses” nearby were nearly depleted.
On Saturday, Aug. 3, the Aspen Historical Society continues the cool tradition it has maintained since the 1970s, hosting its annual Ice Cream Social on the lawn of the Wheeler/Stallard Museum. Event entry is free; take a bowl of ice cream ($3) to the DIY toppings bar, sip on a famed Aspen Crud spiked milkshake ($5), and enjoy lawn games and entertainment including a concert by the Aspen High School band (2 p.m.) and “A Briefly Complete History of Aspen” performed by professional actors (3 p.m). (See sidebar, opposite page.)
“While there is no evidence of ice running out in Aspen—perhaps due to high-altitude temperatures — the community tradition of an ice cream social has been alive and well in the area since 1890,” writes Eliza Greenman Burlingame of AHS. By then the national trend was in full swing; Thomas Jefferson popularized the treat, having hosted an ice cream social at the White House in 1802 and serving it to guests half a dozen times after encountering the delicacy in France. Ice cream in Aspen, meanwhile, was available in town beginning in 1881, when the Berg bakery and confectionary shop opened at 419 E. Hyman Ave. (roughly where 7908 supper club is located now on the pedestrian mall).
Though the Historical Society anticipates a steady stream of nearly 300 guests on Saturday afternoon, an ice cream social happens daily in the downtown core: on Paradise Corner, home, of course, to Paradise Bakery. Owner Mark Patterson estimates that the landmark purveyor of 24 flavors of homemade gelato (Italian-style ice cream) — as well as cookies, brownies, muffins and other baked goods — welcomes “a quarter of a million people through the door” annually.
So it’s fairly ironic that Paradise Bakery — gracious supplier of sweet stuff to the Historical Society social since it opened on the former site of a gas station 38 years ago — will evaporate from this corner in two years. Even more shocking than the fact that Patterson’s landlord refuses to renew Paradise Bakery’s lease: The luxury retail boutique expanding into the space reportedly plans to open, on a separate lease, as Patterson has heard, “their own gelato bakery or something. That’s been kind of awkward for us, we’re gonna compete (with them).”
How much for a sprinkle of boycott?
“We’ve moved on from that,” Patterson says, sitting on a metal chair outside of the bakery one sunny morning in July. His brother and Paradise co-founder Danny Patterson can’t help but chime in: “That’s already been dragged through the mud!”
The Pattersons urge fans not to worry about Paradise lost, however. The duo is deep in discussion with developer Mark Hunt, who seems intent on continuing Paradise Bakery’s legacy as an Aspen hub — and steady donor of ice cream and cookies to events by more than 120 area organizations — potentially in his new development by the Dancing Fountain.
“We like the community support, and it helps,” Patterson says, alluding to public outcry in the wake of The Aspen Times’ announcement (“‘Paradise Corner’ in Aspen to be lost in 2021,” May 2, 2019). “But we’re excited to go somewhere else. We’re gonna focus on a new-and-improved Paradise.”
It’s hard to imagine the bakery as a better version, but one only needs to step behind the counter — where a chilled glass case woos passersby with a colorful gelato mosaic next to literal piles of sweet and savory delicacies—to get a taste of how baking flow could improve.
Below the 600-square-foot space in which grinning patrons order coffee and treats for takeaway (Paradise’s few production ovens and toasters are just out of view, in a cramped, chaotic space the size of a large storage closet), employee Isaac Avendano is keeping cool. This is his realm: the air-conditioned production kitchen that spans a good chunk of the 1,000-foot subterranean portion of Paradise Bakery.
This is the part of Paradise that few, if any, customers ever see. And this is where the magic is made.
“People ask me, ‘Why are you skinny?’” says Avendano, who each day prepares between 50 to 70 metal display tubs of ice cream, as well as gargantuan batches of cookie dough and other confections. Currently, he’s whipping together four batches (12 containers) of mint chocolate chip gelato, Paradise’s most popular flavor.
“You should see in the afternoon — all day there’s a long line outside,” Avendano continues, speaking as if “outside” is a land far away. Another family rush peaks between 7 and 9 p.m., as crowds congregate on Paradise Corner to hear Aspen Music Festival and School students perform for tip money. “We close at 11 p.m., and sometimes people stay outside, knocking on the door,” he adds, chuckling.
After 15 years, Avendano, a fellow employee, and two part-timers have production dialed. Gelato is slow-churned from just four ingredients including whole milk, resulting in less air than many ice creams. Last year, the Pattersons purchased a newer, more efficient gelato machine off eBay. The 900-pound shipment arrived two days before the Fourth of July. Somehow, the team was able to hoist it down narrow stairs, and production has continued apace ever since.
“As long as we’re in business here, and there are ice cream socials, these are the things we’re excited to still be a part of,” says Danny Patterson, known to show up to meetings or events with bags of cookies. “We raised our kids here, we (do a) mentoring program in the store. It’s different if you donate money, but cookies and ice cream …”
Mark Patterson points out that of some 75 Paradise Bakery locations that have opened around the country since 1981, Aspen is the only branch to serve ice cream. Meanwhile, every major chain that has launched a scoop shop here — Ben & Jerry’s, Baskin-Robbins, Häagen-Dazs, Maggie Moo’s — has melted away. Maybe it’s the mountain air: Aspen’s tradition of a year-round, small-batch ice cream social will continue along with Paradise Bakery’s next chapter.
“We’re known as Paradise Corner,” Danny Patterson explains, regarding the search for real estate. “We have to stay on a corner. Maybe with some seating ….”