This past July, I walked into an ice cream shop near my Brooklyn apartment. It's not an ice cream shop, really—it's a great Buffalo wing restaurant that happens to serve Perry's, an excellent ice cream from upstate New York. I don't eat ice cream all that much these days (I prefer to dedicate my belly real estate to beer), so I was looking forward to it. My wife, Amy, was with me, and my two-year-old daughter, Sylvia. Amy asked for her usual—cookies and cream in a cup, which she would share with Sylvia—and, when it was my turn, I put in my default order: vanilla ice cream in a sugar cone, with chocolate sprinkles.
"You have chocolate sprinkles, right?" I asked the kid behind the counter.
"We do!" he said.
"Chocolate ones?" I asked.
"Well, no," he admitted. "They're rainbow sprinkles. Is that okay?"
I told him to forget it. What was the point when, in my world, an ice cream cone without chocolate sprinkles isn't an ice cream cone at all?
It wasn't the first time this summer that I'd been denied my chocolate-sprinkle fix. I've been told by several ice cream scoopers, in Brooklyn and beyond, that their shops no longer offer them, though every single one has an abundance of the rainbow variety. If only they understood how much I love the former and loathe the latter. If only they could comprehend the fact that a vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles is one of the most perfect things on earth.
Yes, yes, yes. I know this sounds ridiculous. I'm aware that there are hundreds of gourmet ice cream flavors out there, many with plenty of texture built in—ice creams with ingredients like peanut butter cups, candy canes, chocolate-covered pretzels, or chopped-up bits of waffle chunk. Yet, even though ice cream with chopped-up bits of waffle chunk is probably fine on its own, if the parlor that serves it doesn't offer chocolate sprinkles on top, I'll probably just get a malt instead.
I know that a lot of people find sprinkles childish—whether they're chocolate or rainbow. But my father ordered chocolate sprinkles. My mother did, too. And given that those two people remain the guideposts of my adult life, I think chocolate sprinkles are just about as adult as the whiskey in my soda and the tonic in my gin.
My parents first taught me to love chocolate sprinkles in the 1970s, a time when the most elaborate ice cream flavors at the local Friendly's near our home in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, were butter pecan and Rocky Road. I loved the added texture the sprinkles provided, the waxy exterior giving way to a cool and crunchy interior; I loved how the sprinkles completely covered my cone, as if it had been encased in Vesuvian ash. I loved biting through the scattered coating to reveal the vanilla or, occasionally, coffee ice cream below. I loved licking them off, slowly and methodically, savoring their cocoa flavor, until each and every one was gone. Their crunch was particularly essential atop ice-cream-truck soft-serve; to me, soft-serve without a healthy coating of sprinkles is just a structureless blob.
Despite their kiddie associations, sprinkles—the rainbow version, at least—have a strangely adult origin story. I talked to Serious Eats' pastry wizard, Stella Parks, who told me that the brightly colored confections appeared as far back as the 1800s, evolving within the pharmaceutical industry as a way to dispense drugs. Since it was unsafe to have a patient dose out a milligram of, say, cocaine for himself, pharmacists would either sprinkle liquid medication over nonpareils and toss them until the drug was fully absorbed, or, later, use the nonpareils as a candy coating, rather like medicinal Jordan almonds, which also made less palatable drugs easier to swallow. Dyes were often added to the coating as a way to visually distinguish between different types of medicine. "As near as I can tell," Stella says, "the rainbow sprinkles we eat today came about as a way for medical dragée manufacturers to stay afloat, as scientific advances like encapsulation made the former methods obsolete." This also explains why sprinkles are called "hundreds and thousands" in some countries, since that was the pharmaceutical lingo for their milligram dosage.
Stella, a fellow sprinkles fan who often makes her own at home, told me that rainbow and chocolate sprinkles use basically the same recipe of sugar, corn syrup, palm oil, and carnauba wax. The difference comes down to what flavors, if any, are added to the mix—including chocolate. When I asked Stella about the history of the chocolate sprinkles I know and love today, she told me they originated in the early 20th century at the Rockwood Chocolate Company in Brooklyn, where they were called "Decorettes" and designed specifically for ice cream. Back then, all chocolate sprinkles were made with real cocoa and sugar, extruded and cut to size. But today, some chocolate-sprinkle manufacturers forgo the cocoa, or use only trace amounts, to save money, which is why crappy sprinkles taste like nothing more than wax-coated sugar.
What sets the best chocolate sprinkles apart is the amount, and quality, of the cocoa used. So says Doug Brockmann, who, along with his three brothers, Bob, Bill, and Ken, owns the New Jersey–based American Sprinkle Company. "When you tear open a bag of our chocolate sprinkles, the aroma of cocoa should immediately smack you in the face," Doug told me. Bill used to run a Carvel ice cream shop in Brooklyn; after finding himself dissatisfied with the waxy sprinkles he was buying, he and his brothers consulted old-school baking recipes to come up with a version that had the perfect ratio of cocoa to sugar and other ingredients. The Brockmanns now distribute their sprinkles to hundreds of ice cream shops and grocery stores nationwide, including Carvel and Whole Foods.
When I told Doug about my experience at that Brooklyn ice cream shop, he conceded that his company sells far more rainbow sprinkles than chocolate ones these days. And he's not the only ice cream expert who confirmed their decline. According to Dianne Lytle, co-owner of Aglamesis Brothers, an old-fashioned parlor in Cincinnati, "The demand for rainbow sprinkles has definitely increased, and the demand for chocolate has dropped off over the past 15 years." It turns out she's just as sad about it as I am. "French vanilla ice cream with chocolate sprinkles," she sighed. "Those flavors combined together? That texture? It's the best."
A few days after my failed ice cream run at the Buffalo wing place, I ran into the restaurant's owner, John, at a local bar. I had a few drinks in me, so I confronted him over why he didn't serve plain old chocolate sprinkles at his otherwise fine establishment. He told me he'd never really thought about it before. "I just see the rainbow ones on the ordering form and go with it," he said. "No one really asks for the chocolate ones anymore."
John's a nice guy, and, perhaps picking up on the sound of my sprinkle-loving heart breaking, he told me he'd look into getting some delivered before summer's end—even though I might be the only one who orders them—even if I'm the only person in Brooklyn who can't imagine an ice cream cone without them.
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