I was in the mood for some ice cream, and was pleased to spot a gelataria. But I got suspicious when I saw a sign outside boasting its ‘low fat' flavours. I went in and was mildly outraged to learn that everything in the store was low fat.
Ice cream is celebration food. It's for when you want to set all worries aside and not think about calories and carbohydrates. If you're going to eat ice cream but are worrying about fat, then it's not time to eat ice cream. Writer Michael Pollan put it better than I could, in his book Food Rules. "There is nothing wrong with special occasion foods, as long as every day is not a special occasion. Special occasion foods offer some of the great pleasures of life, so we shouldn't deprive ourselves of them, but the sense of occasion needs to be restored." This involves not just spacing out these wonderful moments, but not creating depleted versions of special occasion foods with the idea that we can eat them more often — maybe even every day.
A large part of the joy of a treat is that you don't get one every day, that you feel you've earned it somehow. Plus, there is nothing joyous about a low- or non-fat version of anything full fat. Non-fat milk tastes and feels horrid and watery. Low-fat yogurt is thin and unsatisfying. Low-fat spreads don't have a fraction of that almost animal attraction of good butter. And low-fat ice cream? I won't damn it too much without trying and will go back very soon, I promise.
But in the end, it doesn't matter what it tastes like, or what that all-important mouthfeel is like. If ice-cream is sold as low-fat or low-carb it's now health food not dessert. This doesn't mean it's good for you, just that it's food with the goodness sucked out of it and replaced by righteousness and chemicals. It now stands for that all-American connection of ‘dessert' with ‘guilt' and ‘sin', and not ‘happiness' or ‘celebration'. It promotes over-consumption since people tend to (and are encouraged to) forget that extra servings of purportedly low-calorie food is high-calorie food.
Taste in every bite
Not far from this fat-free haven is gelataria that makes no health claims. It serves only a few, freshly made ice creams, each with intense flavours you know are natural because you can taste them in every bite, right up to when you clean out the bowl. The creamy pistachio has pleasing grain from the nuts as well as the taste of their papery skins. There's a stunning frozen yogurt with olive oil and sea salt. The coffee ice creams are bitter from espresso, the fruit ones like clouds of pears or whatever else is fresh that day.
With so much flavour and full fat of high-quality milk, you don't need to eat much, and indeed this is one of the few American ice cream places I've been to that has sensible portions.
The focus on rich ingredients results in a funny flip. You pay more and get less, and yet come away with a greater sense of value for money. The sense of occasion is back, and the realisation hits that things that are ‘bad' for you — from triple-cream Brie to chocolate mousse to pistachio gelato — are not to be vilified or corrected in labs, but rather, put up on pedestals as if something precious and rare.
Oh, and those jokes at the table about how long you need to spend at a gym to burn off whatever you're consuming? No longer funny. ‘Eating while guilty' is hereby deemed a crime.
Gautam Raja is a journalist based in the US.