This is a book about Jewish immigrants and ice cream. In other words, it is a perfect book for me. I obviously love Jewish history, and my husband and I love ice cream so much that we had an ice cream sundae bar at our wedding*. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street didn’t disappoint. I found myself trying to read the book slowly in order to make it last longer, as it was so good – not unlike taking dainty licks to make the ice cream cone last longer. Gilman is wonderful storyteller, and her main character, Lillian, is an engaging and spirited narrator.
The Ice Cream Queen alternates between Lillian’s present-day life, as she navigates a pending scandal as the head of her enormous ice cream company, and flashbacks that tell the story of her rise to fame and fortune. Gilman keeps readers in suspense by waiting until close to the end of the novel to reveal the scandal. Lillian Dunkle was born Malka Bialystoker, and her earliest memories are of how she and her family were able to escape their Russian shtetl and get on a ship to America. Lillian remembers the disillusionment and disappointment her family experienced on arrival to the Lower East Side, which was a poverty-stricken, disease-addled mess. Furthermore, not only were the challenges of learning an entirely new way of life too much for some, but many were just schmucks to begin with.** After Lillian’s father disappears, she muses: “Every month posters in Yiddish, Italian, and English papered the neighborhood with names and short descriptions of all the men who had deserted the families or gone missing: lost. Seeking. Last seen. It was epidemic. In all those ridiculous fairy tales about immigrant life, poor-but-happy families pull together to launch a rag business – that turns into a tailor’s shop – that turns into Ralph Lauren. Please…I have no use for that sort of nonsense. On the Lower East Side, families shattered like glass bottles. Men up and left all the time.”
But Lillian does have a rags-to-riches story. On a fateful afternoon, Lillian is hit by an ice cream cart. With her father gone and her mother in a sanitarium, Lillian is taken in by the guilt-ridden ice cream man and his large Italian family, the Dinello’s. Lillian watches and helps as the Dinello’s family business grows from a few horse-drawn carts to a storefront ice cream parlor. Gillman provides a good amount of ice cream science, which I particularly enjoyed. In the horse-drawn cart days, the Dinello’s would prepare their Italian ice mixture in the kitchen by using rock salt and a crank. Having a permanent ice cream parlor meant that the Dinello’s could get a continuous-batch freezer: “In the decade before my family and I arrived in America, a man named Burr Walker, oddly enough – Burr, darlings, could you make this up? – invented a ‘circulating brine freezer.’ Instead of employing ice and rock salt, this curious contraption froze ingredients inside a cylinder encased in brine, cooled with an ammonia compressor…you could pour the ingredients in the top, start the motor, and have it all come out as ice cream at the bottom…”
Lillian and some of the Dinello boys, like many on the Lower East Side in the early 1900’s, find their way to some “community organizing” – that is, socialist/Communist types of meetings. But Lillian, her no-nonsense streak strong from the beginning, admits: “What little I knew about Communism I did not care for at all…and the idea that the Dinellos could build their little ice cream factory into a great success only to have it taken over by ‘the proletariat’? This was repellant to me. I dreamed of being rich myself one day…Certainly nobody I knew had immigrated here to share. Nobody I knew was hoping to hand over the fruits of their labors to every goddamn nudnik in the tenement. Besides, Communism had been invented by Russians. Those drunken, murderous Russians who had beaten my grandfather to death in his own kitchen.”
The one good thing to come of the meetings, though, is that Lillian is introduced to her future husband, a man named Bert who looks like Errol Flynn, though he’s not quite as sharp is Lillian. Her growing relationship with Bert, who is Jewish, highlights how Lillian is never completely accepted by the Dinello children, who can’t quite stop seeing her as an "amazza Christo." Eventually, she is left out of an important family business decision. This leaves her livid and determined to get revenge, somehow. And she does. She and her new husband, Bert, start “Dunkle’s Ice Cream” and have a stroke of luck when they apparently ‘discover’ how to make soft-serve ice cream. As is known from the beginning of the book, Dunkle’s becomes so big that Lillian is known as the “Ice Cream Queen of America,” with a Sunday Morning “Sundae Fun-house” TV show. Gillman seems to have had fun imagining the sorts of promotions that an ice cream company could do over the years: partnering with polio vaccinations so that every child who had a shot got a free cone, creating special flavors for WWII (“armistachio”), and capitalizing on her Yiddish-Italian background to be the “ultimate” caring, pushy mother in her commercials: “ Soon, ‘So sue me: I worry’ became a hugely popular catchphrase. Customers, they gleefully parroted it in our stores, mimicking my accent….I pinched their cheeks. I told them to ‘eat a little. Have a little something for the mouth.’ ”
I enjoyed the way Gillman’s characters and plotlines loosely mimicked and recalled actual history. Lillian’s rivalry with the Dinello’s made me think of the tense relationship between the old Jewish and Italian gangs of New York (thinking of Meyer Lansky). The popularity of Lillian’s ‘homey’ commercials made me wonder if Gillman didn’t have the old sitcom “Mrs. Goldberg” in mind:
And, as I mentioned, Lillian’s schmuck father, who disappears when she is a girl but reappears later in her life only to try to get his hustle his share of her fortune, brings to mind this recent book**, which recounts numerous similar stories.
My only real quibble is for Gillman’s editor. The cover of the edition I got pictures a woman’s feet, in fashionable high heeled shoes, next to a dropped ice cream cone. But Lillian’s disability from the childhood accident, and her subsequent dependence on a cane and special shoes, is crucial to the story. So…why the stylish heels? Oh well.
That’s it, though – everything else was smooth, creamy perfection for me.
* It was specifically Blue Bell brand, as I’m from Texas, and Blue Bell is definitely the best ice cream of all time.
** For more on this, check out the relatively new compilation, A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward, by Isaac Metzker and Harry Golden. The Bintel Brief was a real advice column which handled questions of new Jewish immigrants, and also included countless pleas for help in finding lost or missing relatives.