MONTPELIER, Vt. — Let’s start with the basics: Don’t call it soft serve.
A creemee, Vermont’s one-of-a-kind frozen delicacy, may be related to soft serve, but think of them as distant cousins who haven’t seen each other for years and no longer exchange Christmas cards. Sure, they may look alike, and the same pressurized twin twist machine may dispense them both, but the critical difference is that creemees taste better. Sorry, soft serve, that’s just the way it is.
If you’ve never heard of a creemee, you’re not alone. The phenomenon was foreign to me until last summer when I was in a very northern, very rural Vermont town that happens to be occupied by a cult. On my way out of town, I stopped at the local country store to see if I needed deprogramming (and fill my gas tank). The store had a sign that read “Creemees.” I didn’t want to ask any questions because of the whole cult thing. But it stayed with me. What was a creemee?
Here’s the shorthand answer from Jeff Gaultier, who is in charge of marketing (and also makes maple candies and maple snow) at Morse Farms Maple Sugarworks in Montpelier.
“The term creemee is unique to Vermont,” Gaultier said. “Everyone else was doing soft serve, and it was all the same. But Vermont was a big dairy state. Legend has it that they started putting more milk fat in the soft serve mix than other places. That’s why it’s not soft serve, it’s creemee. It’s creamier than soft serve. Also because it’s more unhealthy for you.”
I chose to ignore the “more unhealthy” part of Gaultier’s history lesson, and on a gloriously sunny day, I got in my car and made a creemee crawl through Vermont. The essential Vermont creemee is made with real maple syrup. You can find many other flavors, but it’s critical to start with maple, then work your way up to chocolate, then vanilla, and then get fancy.
Because of the higher fat content, a creemee tastes like the love child of soft serve and ice cream. It’s richer and more flavorful than soft serve but lighter and airier than ice cream. Variations in maple intensity differ from stand to stand, but the sweetness level will not make your teeth ache.
The area surrounding Montpelier is a creemee lover’s dream, and I was able to hit several locations in a short amount of time. Gaultier referred to my indulgent day as “creemee journalism.” He claimed creemee journalism is a thing, so I now plan to add “creemee journalist” to the list of skills on my resume. As a true creemee journalist, I needed more history. So as I licked away at a Morse Farm maple creemee coated in maple dust, I pressed for more information.
“It supposedly started at the Vermont State Fair in Rutland,” Gaultier said. “Which is where the word came from.”
But the Vermont State Fair where the creemee was purportedly introduced took place in 1981. That explanation doesn’t sit well with those who say they’ve been using the term creemee for more than four decades.
In Waitsfield at the Canteen Creemee Company, owner Charlie Menard doesn’t think the name came from the higher fat content. Instead, he thinks the name has French-Canadian roots.
In Quebec, soft serve is called crème glacée molle. Given its proximity to Vermont, he theorized that travelers from Quebec brought the term crème glacée (ice cream) with them, it was shortened to crème, and then stretched to creemee.
“I think it just evolved, maybe from kids mispronouncing it,” he said. “It’s what I’ve always called it. It was a weird thing to find out that other people didn’t call it that. The other thing that’s different here is that people don’t ask for a swirl [of two flavors]. They ask for a twist.”
Menard got behind the machine and dispensed a perfect maple creemee. Its texture was denser than the Morse Farm creemee, and the maple flavor was lighter. This was perfection in a cone. When I thought it wouldn’t get any better, he let me taste the chocolate creemee. When I come back, I’ll know to order a maple-chocolate twist.
Menard, who has a background as a chef, experiments with his creemee flavors. On the day I dropped by, he was serving up the standard flavors, but also Thai tea and coconut creemees.
The challenge of my creemee crawl was trying to gingerly taste each cone without immediately devouring them all. It should have been more like a wine tasting than a pub crawl, but like the wise Rick Astley once sang “It Would Take a Strong Man” not to finish a creemee. Although I don’t think Astley was singing about creemees.
But as a creemee journalist, I pressed ahead. I tried the maple creemee at Dairy Creme. It was a solid offering. Perhaps not on par with Canteen Creemee, but more than serviceable. I had made a list of creemee stands to visit, but then I started noticing that many general stores also sell creemees. In the name of research, I needed to stop at a couple of those locations as well. I was thankful I opted for shorts with a stretch waistband.
I headed to Al’s French Frys in South Burlington, a retro diner that makes a creemee on par with Morse Farm. I went south to the Village Creemee Stand in Bristol, which not only has rich creemees (perhaps a hint more fat?), but also killer onion rings. I ate my weight in creemees and then collapsed.
I don’t advise that you try a full crawl. The most important lesson I learned as a creemee journalist is that the creemee was meant to be savored. Its origins may be murky, but the most important thing you need to know is that these smooth frozen treats are worth seeking out.
Where to get them:
Village Creemee Stand, 41 West St., Bristol. 802-453-6034.
Canteen Creemee Company, 5123 Main St., Waitsfield. 802-496-6003.
Dairy Creme, 320 State St., Montpelier. 802-223-5802.
Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, 1168 County Road, Montpelier. 802-223-2740.
Al’s French Frys, 1251 Williston Road, South Burlington. 802-862-9203.