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Goop Dreams

September 09, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I used to dream about Goop's Scoop. It was just a soda fountain on a stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard that was still pretty rural in 1950, but it had a magical glamour to me. My older brothers hung out there, and from them I drew a glittering picture of ice cream treats and the enthralling social life of Van Nuys High School.

One of my brothers promised to take me to Goop's the night before he went off to college, but enthralling teenage social life distracted him and he never did. And by the time I was old enough to visit soda fountains on my own, Goop's Scoop was closed.

I was both a beneficiary and a victim of the post-World War II ice cream orgy. With the war over, Americans celebrated the end of all the Depression and war-time privations by gorging on ice cream. In 1946, we ate 20 quarts per capita, twice as much as before the war. Ice cream was known as "milk in its finest form." It was a golden age of soda fountains.

But by 1950, the tide had turned, and soda fountains were disappearing at a rate of more than a thousand a year. The economy had returned to a peacetime footing, so people had a lot more things to spend their money on. Sure, they kept on eating ice cream. More and more, though, they bought it at the supermarket and ate it at home.

And sure, there were still ice cream shops, but they were no longer real soda fountains. They mostly served cones, and they came to emphasize having a vast range of flavors. I suspect the novel flavors were prefabricated sundae-substitutes, requiring no soda jerk skills to concoct.

That wasn't good enough for me. I was still hooked on soda fountains, so I made do with the ones that survived in drugstores. To my child's eye, they were like ice cream cathedrals. In the middle stood the gleaming chromed console of the soda fountain itself, with its levers and spigots and bottles of colored syrups, surrounded by uniformed acolytes in white caps. The air was filled with a heady incense of vanilla, chocolate, whipped cream and toasted almonds.

The fountain console, where the soda jerk dispensed soda water (by jerking down a lever) and mixed shakes, was the central attraction and the most American thing about the soda shop. Drinks made by blending ice cream with milk or sparkling water were our particular national taste.

Well, a malt or a milkshake was fine with me, but what I wanted was a sundae. It wasn't just a glass full of liquid. It had structure and complexity. It had scope.

The legend of the sundae is well known. In the 1880s, Prohibitionists promoted the soda fountain as a wholesome alternative to the saloon. When a garnished ice cream dish was invented in the 1890s, so the story goes, it was called a Sunday at first, because it was served on that day, but the spelling was changed to "sundae" to avoid giving offense.

Well, maybe that's how the name arose, but I just don't think Americans invented the sundae from scratch. It's a legacy from the gilded cuisine of 18th century France. The sundae is the American version of the coupe glacee--bigger, less refined, more varied and more exuberant than the French original.

Like the coupe glacee, the sundae was not supposed to be served, as a plain scoop of ice cream would be, on an everyday plate. It had to be served in glistening, transparent glass, so it could be properly admired. For their coupes glacees, the French often used the sort of long-stemmed glass with a wide bowl that Americans thought of as a Champagne glass 30 or 40 years ago. In this country, an ice cream coupe was more likely to be a short-stemmed, rather sturdy glass bowl with a broadly triangular profile.

And then there was a taller glass, much the same as a milkshake glass but sometimes with quasi-floral curvature toward the top, that was known as a sundae glass or parfait glass. In France, a parfait was a concoction that was assembled and then frozen--a simpler version of the frozen ice cream mold known as a bombe--but an American parfait was created in the glass by building up layers of ice cream, sauces and garnishes.

Finally, there was our national specialty, the banana split bowl--made of glass, naturally, but long enough to hold a split banana saddled with scoops of ice cream.

A coupe glacee is basically ice cream garnished with fruit and whipped cream, and so were the first sundaes. But early on, the distinguishing mark of a sundae came to be the presence of a sauce. A 1904 newspaper story said you could make your own sundae at home by making rich vanilla ice cream and pouring the syrup from preserved fruits over it.

In the golden age of sundaes, a soda fountain would have a generous palette of sauces: chocolate, marshmallow, butterscotch, caramel, pineapple, coffee, cherry and often others. One of the oldest sundaes, dating from the beginning of the century, is the Hot Maple: vanilla ice cream, hot maple syrup and walnuts.

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