After a short wait outside, a woman came into Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream holding her phone up and listening to someone through a set of earphones attached to a long, white cord.
She talked back and forth with her mother, who was seated outside and didn’t want to come in.
The woman’s mask was fitted snuggly under her chin as she scanned the menu board on the wall. The clerk working the counter tried to get her attention and gently ask her to cover her mouth and nose.
It took a couple of tries before the customer seemed to remember that she’d come indoors.
Apologizing absent-mindedly, she rambled through an order that changed at least twice within the same breath and took two people, including Ellen, to halfway untangle.
Finally, Ellen spoke to the woman’s mother, sitting outside, over the phone about what she really wanted, which only partially resembled what the staff had already put together for her daughter, who was standing in front of the counter, debit card in hand.
She sounded irritated and ready to fight.
Ellen said that she just wanted to make sure she got what she wanted.
They started the order again.
The ice cream was for neither one of the women, but for the daughter’s boyfriend, who was not with them.
The mother was treating him to ice cream.
As the staff made the mixture of ice creams and espresso, the woman took another call, bickered with the boyfriend for a minute about something he’d said to her mother before abruptly hanging up on him after calling him something I only say while driving.
Well, that’s a lie. I’ve got a mouth on me.
Anyway, the woman got her order. She paid, thanked us and then took the big cup of ice cream to her mother waiting outside, who immediately waved it off.
Her daughter just shrugged, took the lid off the cup and began to spoon the concoction into her mouth as they made their way down Capitol street.
Neither Ellen nor I knew what had just happened, but I wanted to laugh.
Ellen said nothing. Then I looked over and said, “I thought for a second there, she was going to come back in to argue.”
Ellen said nothing.
“They looked like trouble,” I offered.
Ellen remained quiet and then looked at me.
“I’m not saying anything,” she said.
There was no way I was going to get her to comment about a customer, even an eye-crossingly difficult one.
“That’s OK,” I said. “I can say that was weird.”
Ellen went back to work.
I’d legitimately missed this part of working a counter — the public.
Years ago, I poured coffee nights and weekends at Books-A-Million.
It was a great side gig, one of my favorites. I enjoyed the work and the people I worked with but didn’t really care too much about whether I kept the job, which was pretty liberating.
The money was so-so, but I got free coffee and a front-row seat to grown-up temper tantrums over bottled water, college kids coming out to their girlfriends while buying them Valentine’s Day-themed lattes and the occasional lonely guy trying to impress compensated company.
One time, as I was wiping down tables, a man told me he felt the Lord was telling him to give me $100.
After spending a minute trying to dissuade him from doing that, I thanked him, took the money, but split it with the other guy working the coffee shop with me that night.
Divinely inspired or not, I thought it qualified as a tip.
While at Ellen’s this month, I hadn’t seen really any conflict or weird human dramas. I’d expected something. Charleston may not have all the fancy extras of a big city, but we’re never short of characters.
A lot of this has to do with Ellen’s easy-going approach.
“Just be nice,” she said to me.
Don’t raise your voice. Don’t argue. Be helpful. Clarify what the other person wants and don’t let things escalate.
“It’s only ice cream,” she told me, repeatedly. “Ice cream is supposed to be fun.”
As I was finishing up at the ice cream shop, I’d accomplished a few of the things I’d set out to.
I’d filled in my card of flavors tried. I can honestly say I’ve had every flavor on her menu board.
A very sweet, little girl from Sacred Heart Catholic asked me which flavor was my favorite.
I told her all but one.
“Which one?” she asked, and pressed until I finally gave in.
“Mint chocolate chip,” I said.
“That’s OK,” she told me. “Not everybody has to like that one.”
She was having vanilla with rainbow sprinkles.
Of course, having knowledge of all the flavors would be a temporary achievement. Ellen swaps a few out and adds new ones from time to time. While mostly loitering and trying to dodge the women working in the shop, I got to try banana and Smooth Ambler Vanilla, which was a special for Tamarack — and really good.
The banana flavor was also something I’d never had, as in I’d never eaten banana ice cream anywhere.
I liked it. It reminded me of banana cream pie.
This month, I also broke in my old-but-never-used ice cream maker. I had modest successes with candy bars and curry (not in the same batch) and experienced heartbreak with carrot cake.
This had been particularly disappointing because unlike the peanut curry ice cream, the carrot cake ice cream was an awful hassle to make.
There were multiple steps and different ingredients had to be prepared before they could be mixed in. The nuts had to be candied. The raisins had to be cooked in a rum flavoring and soaked for at least a day.
The ice cream base had to be heated and then cooled overnight before it could be put in the ice cream churn.
Because I have a job, I had to work on this ice cream recipe over several evenings.
The carrot cake ice cream was also a little expensive because of the nuts, mascarpone, cream cheese and fresh ginger.
And then ... nobody was all that enthusiastic about it. Education reporter and designated guinea pig Ryan Quinn told me I nailed the texture, but said that there just wasn’t enough carrot flavor.
He was right, of course.
Through the rest of the newsroom, the response was pretty much the same. Everyone was polite, but nobody asked for seconds.
I wound up taking most of a quart home, which tasted like defeat, but at least I’d come away from the experience realizing I could do more at home with my ice cream maker than basic chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
I just needed better recipes and a little practice.
Back at Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream, I learned about making a banana split, which seemed pretty simple, but was actually nuanced.
The traditional banana split is three flavors of ice cream, covered with toppings and wedged between a single banana split longways.
The staff at Ellen’s doesn’t split the banana but puts the three scoops (whatever flavors you want — an important point to remember) in the plastic dish and then slices a banana into chips to surround the ice cream.
They do that to make it easier to eat with a flimsy plastic spoon. Plastic spoons aren’t designed to cut through anything and having the banana broken down into bite-sized pieces would reduce the opportunity for making a mess without significantly changing the composition of the sundae.
They also whip their own cream for each individual order. It doesn’t come from a can, which is just a nice touch.
On my last day at Ellen’s, she asked me about trying their lunch menu items. They have daily soup, salad and pasta specials, many of them vegetarian or vegan, but I sort of waved it off.
“That seems kind of off message,” I said. “Just ice cream, right?”
She pointed out it was more than that and I knew that. Ellen’s doesn’t just get by on ice cream.
“You at least have to try a pepperoni roll,” Ellen told me, as I was leaving.
They were handmade, fresh out of the oven and still warm. I took one to go and ate it on my way back to the newspaper.
I finished it before I got to the end of the block.