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A cold war: Which is better, hard or soft-serve ice cream?

Serving up a debate over New England’s favorite cool indulgence.

images from adobe stock; globe staff photo illustration

Summer in New England is sticky, and it’s not just the humidity. We love our ice cream. But while a soft serve at the ballgame and an old-fashioned scoop by the beach both scream “summahtime,” which frozen treat is the ultimate icy indulgence?


Ice cream: While people were sweetening snow and ice more than 2,000 years ago, “cream ice” started to appear on the tables of European monarchs in the 16th century. By the late 18th century, ice cream was available to the very wealthy in America. Freezer-aisle mainstay Breyers was founded in 1866.

Soft serve: Dairy Queen and Carvel both lay claim to inventing soft serve in the 1930s. Tom Carvel said he got the idea after his ice cream truck broke down in Hartsdale, New York, on Memorial Day in 1934, and he was forced to sell his melting product to surprisingly delighted customers.



Ice cream: Brigham’s was born in 1914, and Friendly’s was founded in Springfield in 1935, a year after Four Seas opened on Cape Cod. Richardson’s in Middleton started making ice cream in the 1950s; Sharon’s 86-year-old Crescent Ridge Dairy began scooping in 1968. The 1980s gave us J.P. Licks, Christina’s, and Toscanini’s.

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Soft serve: Weston’s Cedar Hill Dairy Joy has been pumping seasonal soft serve since 1961. The Dairy Freeze in Quincy opened in 1963, while the Cape’s Kream ’n Kone has been at it since the 1950s.


Ice cream: The FDA requires ice cream to contain at least 10 percent milk fat, and less than 1.4 percent egg yolk solids (more eggs create frozen custard). All frozen dairy desserts have air whipped into them so you don’t shatter your teeth, but the FDA says ice cream must weigh a minimum of 4.5 pounds per gallon — which would be about half air, half real ingredients.

Soft serve: Soft serve generally contains 3 to 6 percent butterfat; Dairy Queen’s recipe calls for 5 percent. It also contains a lot more air to achieve its signature fluffy mouth feel.


Ice cream: Almost 200 years before Ronald Reagan signed a law in 1984 declaring July National Ice Cream Month, George Washington spent $200 on ice cream in the summer of 1790 — or more than $3,000 today. Thomas Jefferson wrote the first known ice cream recipe in America — an 18-step ordeal — while first lady Dolley Madison loved oyster-flavored ice cream, and served strawberry ice cream at her husband’s second inauguration in 1813.


Soft serve: Legend has it that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who worked as a research chemist after graduating from Oxford in 1947, helped invent soft serve ice cream in the UK. But historians say her role has probably been exaggerated.


Ice cream: Traditional ice cream stores well in any freezer. You can even make a basic batch with a handful of ingredients and Ziploc bags.

Soft serve: Part of what makes that spiral so special is that you really have to buy it — commercial soft serve machines retail for thousands of dollars.


Ice cream: “Your love is better than ice cream, better than anything else that I’ve tried,” sings Sarah McLachlan on her 1994 breakout album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.

Soft serve: In John Mellencamp’s 1982 No. 1 hit “Jack and Diane,” the Midwestern teens are “suckin’ on chili dogs outside the Tastee-Freez.” (Then Jack gets fresh; I like to think Diane smushes a swirl cone in his face and breaks up with him in the parking lot.)



Ice cream: Ben & Jerry’s says Half Baked — a mashup of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Fudge Brownie — has been its most popular flavor four years running.

Soft serve: Summer in the Green Mountains means it’s time for a maple creemee: soft serve flavored with real maple syrup.


Soft serve is whipped whimsy, as fleeting and fanciful as a summer night. But after the seasonal scoop shops shutter for the winter, hard ice cream — if properly hoarded by the half-gallon — is a four-season friend who’s there through the hard times. And what’s more New England than that?

Sources: International Dairy Foods Association; US Food and Drug Administration;; CNN; Smithsonian; Dairy Queen; Friendly’s; The New Yorker; Ben & Jerry’s; New England Dairy Promotion Board; Scientific American

Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to