I’m fascinated by technique. Whether traditional or modern, it’s always interesting to learn about what makes a better product, let alone what motivates people to buy it. Why do certain people favor old ways of doing things and others new? I'm equally fascinated by how companies choose to present themselves and their processes. Some old-school methods have become as trendy as ever. Likewise, techniques couched as cutting-edge are really nothing more than innovations on old ideas. Isn't the iPod just a new incarnation of the Walkman?
On the Fourth of July, my friend Eileen came over to make us ice cream from her wooden White Mountain Original Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Maker. White Mountain has been in business for 150 years, and the technology hasn’t changed much at all. Made in New Hampshire from New England pine, even the new models look old. Years ago, Eileen had apprenticed under an artisan ice cream maker. Her dad had bought this on eBay to surprise her, and by the looks of it, it is at least sixty years old. The concept is simple, even if the process is somewhat involved. After soaking the wooden bucket for an hour to help prepare it for the briny solution, the cream mixture is put into a metal contained equipped with a paddle, and the lid is attached to a crank. The whole device fits into the bucket surrounded by ice and rock salt—the addition of the latter designed to melt the ice rapidly by raising the freezing point. And then the cranking begins—easy at first, but only for about five minutes. Unless you have arms like Popeye and can sustain 20 minutes of cranking, it takes a village to make. And that's what I love about it. As a communal activity, it's just as fun now as it was a century and a half ago. Once upon a time, this was a huge invention, and even today, this slice of nostalgia still produces great ice cream. Silky, fresh, delicious and reminiscent of days past, this was sheer heaven.
Around the same time, my friends Ben and Gaby invited M.S. and me out for a night on the town in San Francisco. We ended our evening at the roadside ice cream stand, Smitten. The gals over at Smitten have revolutionized ice cream by patenting an ice cream machine they call “Kelvin.” Kelvin churns the ice cream using proprietary software, used to control the texture and correct doses of liquid nitrogen. Like the rock salt in the old-fashioned ice cream making, the liquid nitrogen quickly lowers the temperature of the cream, raising the freezing point to -320°F. The ultra-cold temperatures and open top keep the crystals small and prevents freezer burn, resulting in one of the smoothest ice creams I’ve ever tried. The process is so quick in fact, that all of their ice cream is made to order in 60 seconds. The lines were long, and when I was told at the counter, that they had run out of cones, I had convinced myself that this was nothing more than a gimmick. One taste is all it took for me to see what these folks were really trying to do. The company has clear environmental and social sustainability ethics, and their innovation on the ice cream maker produced one of the sexiest renditions of this frozen treat I’ve ever had. It was exquisite, and the old-time appeal of eating ice cream at a summer roadside stand was as satifactory as ever.
As for the question of which is better, “new or old,” "digital or vinyl," it's really a matter of taste and what speaks to you in your own buying habits. Recently, I wrote about a biodynamic winemaker who was using a new kind of concrete fermentation vat because it aerated the wine better. Are these “ancestral methods”? No, but his vineyards are organically farmed, the winery is powered by solar panels, the technology is sustainable, and he believes that this small innovation makes a better wine. It's the marriage of old and new. And he’s not looking for press, just better juice to sell. The bottom line: when it comes to marketing, it's always best to be authentic. Being real, honest, and showing that there's substance to what you do--be it new, old, or a little of both--is enough to keep your customers interested. The proof is in the ice cream.