In author Jabari Asim's fictionalized St. Louis -- the 'Gateway City' first introduced in his short story collection 'A Taste of Honey' –- characters come to grips with the fallout of the civil rights era in surprising ways. We talk with Asim about the fictional world he created and examine the realities of how we deal with race in America today.
Lillian Dunkle arrives in America in 1913, a penniless child immigrant abandoned by her family. A tough-talking survivor, she’s taken in by an Italian ices peddler, and after learning the tricks of the trade, she goes on to start a small ice cream business with her husband Bert. Along they way, they accidentally invent soft-serve ice cream, and an empire is born. This entertaining narrator takes readers on a journey through the 20th century, from Prohibition to the fancy gourmet ice cream brands that upend the industry. Author Susan Jane Gilman joins us in studio.
- Susan Jane Gilman author, "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street: A Novel"
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from the book The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Jane Gilman. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA young Russian immigrant and her family arrive in New York's overcrowded Lower East Side. Crippled in an accident the girl is abandoned by her family but she's a clever, tough-talking survivor. And when an Italian ices peddler takes her in and teaches her the tricks of the trade, it's the first step in her transformation into Lillian Dunkle, ice cream queen. She falls in love with a beautiful man named Albert. And together they build an empire on the sweet treat, inventing soft serve ice cream along the way.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about her is Susan Jane Gilman, author of the novel "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street." She is a New York Times Best Selling author of three works of nonfiction including "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven." Susan Jane Gilman will be speaking tonight at 7:00 pm at the 6th and I Historic Synagogue at 600 I Street Northwest in downtown D.C. For ticket information you can visit their website. For more information you can visit our website at kojoshow.org. Susan Jane Gilman, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MS. SUSAN JANE GILMANHi. It's a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhere the heck did you come up with the idea to write a novel around an ice cream empire and its founder?
GILMANWell, there hasn't been a great American ice cream novel thus far. It actually came about though, I grew up in the northeast with Carvel Ice Cream. And the owner Tom Carvel used to make his own commercials. He had this gravelly voice, please buy my nice fudgy (word?) ice cream cake. And I loved it. You'd want to buy his ice cream because you didn't want him to have a heart attack.
GILMANSo one day I Googled him and I found out his name had been Tom Carvelas. He was a Greek immigrant. He'd started out with nothing and built this fortune through soft serve ice cream. And I thought that would make a great basis for a novel.
NNAMDIBut you didn't base your novel on a fictionalized version of his, Tom Carvelas' story. Instead you created one Lillian Dunkle. Tell us about her.
GILMANWell, for a long time, Kojo, I'd wanted to write this really delicious female antihero. I felt like there's a shortage of that in modern American literature. I wanted...
GILMANI wanted somebody kind of down and dirty, fresh talking, ruthless but who you kind of root for anyway even though she behaves badly.
NNAMDICan you read a little bit from the opening of the novel about Lillian Dunkle?
GILMANCertainly. It's first person so you're all going to meet her, listeners. This is Chapter One. We’d been in America just three months when the horse ran over me. I don’t know exactly how old I was. Six perhaps? When I was born, they didn't keep records. All I remember was running down Hester Street, looking for Papa. I heard a clop, then I was tumbling. There was a split-second flash of hoof, then a white-hot bolt of pain. Then: nothing.
GILMANThe horse that trampled me was pulling a penny-ices cart. What a peculiar twist of fate that turned out to be, no? If I'd been crippled by, say, a rag man or a coal vendor, I would never have become Lillian Dunkle, the legend that the world knows today. The public, however, always assumes that my fortunes are due solely to my husband. But let me tell you, darlings, The Tower of Sprinkles, The Mint Everest, The Fudgie Puppie, all of these, all of these, millions sold every year were my concoctions, my ideas.
GILMANPresident Dwight D. Eisenhower himself once christened me "The Ice Cream Queen of America." I even have a signed photograph of us, with Mamie, all pearls, bad teeth, shaking hands in the Rose Garden. I'm wearing my first-ever Chanel suit too, very nearly the color of strawberry ice cream. And This was years before Jackie Kennedy, thank you. Yet when people hear my name now, all they think of are sordid headlines, a single incident on live television. Claims of tax evasion and arrest, wrongful too, need I remind you?
GILMANJust yesterday my grandson even informed me that I’m an answer in the latest edition of Trivial Pursuit. Live long enough, I suppose you see everything but it's a witch hunt. It was only a local station, for god's sake. And we aired at 7:00 am on a Sunday, a Sunday. And okay, maybe I had had a few drinks but darlings, you try hosting a kiddy show for 13 hideous years.
NNAMDISusan Jane Gilman, author of the novel "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street." She's a New York Times Best Selling Author of three works of nonfiction including "Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven." Watching you read this you become the character Lillian Dunkle yourself. You remind me so much of Leona Helmsley. Why?
GILMANWell, partially because I channel the voice. When you are writing it is sort of acting. I also recorded the audio books so when you...
NNAMDIOh, that makes sense.
GILMAN...yeah, you coach it and you learn with it. In fact, I just was given the earphone award for it by AudioFile magazine. And I didn't understand why. Then I realized your phone was for speaking, not listening.
NNAMDII do understand why. In that passage we get a little taste of what's ahead in this rags-to-riches tale. But let's back up a moment. The Lower East Side in the early years of the 20th century is quite a colorful and quite a pungent place. And you capture that powerfully in this novel. And while some paint a nostalgic and picturesque image of the Lower East Side immigrant experience, you give us instead Lillian's unsentimental view. It's my understanding that your grandmother helped give you a little of the flavor of the place.
GILMANShe did. She -- her family immigrated over from Poland in 1907. And she grew up on the corner of Orchard Street and Grand. So the title's a bit of an homage to my grandmother. And, you know, she said it was dirty, it was crowded, it was filthy, it was stinking, it was dangerous. She had no love for the Lower East Side. There's a great mythology about it of course but it was hard.
NNAMDIYour first three books were all nonfiction. Why a novel now?
GILMANKojo, I always planned to write novels. I never actually thought I'd write nonfiction. I just had to get a lot off my chest, it seems. All these things cropped up in our culture and I felt the need to respond to them with books. So this was the dream in the plan all along.
NNAMDI800-433--8850 is our number if you have questions or comments for Susan Jane Gilman. Are you a fan of historical fiction? Who are your favorite fictional bad girls, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. You grew up in New York. And you had a high school teacher who inspired you to become a writer. Some guy named Frank McCourt who wrote the little known book called "Angel's (sic) Ashes." Tell us about what you learned from Frank McCourt.
GILMANFrank McCourt -- oh, and I may tear up on air on this. I still do when I speak about him. He was my high school English teacher. He had a creative writing class.
NNAMDIWe talked to him about that. He taught high school for 30 years.
GILMANFor 30 years, and I was one of his myriad of students, and so I speak for a lot of us when I say he changed my life. He liked my writing and he told me to send it to the Village Voice. And I did and they published me. I was 16. I earned $200. That was more money I earned as a writer until I was about 30. And he championed me and we stayed friend through all these years. And I thought, one day when I write my first novel, I'll dedicate it to him, you know, so that he's remembered as more than just a teacher.
GILMANAnd clearly fate had better plans in store for him because I got to watch his spectacular rise. And when my second book "Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress" debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list, he was the first phone call I made. And I stayed friends with him until the day he died. And I miss him every day.
NNAMDIYou're making me cry now.
GILMANBut I dedicated this novel to him. I made good on my promise just a few years too late.
NNAMDIWell, thank you Frank McCourt for Susan Jane Gilman. Getting back to the novel, tell us about Lillian and how she ends up with an Italian ices peddler and his family.
GILMANWell, as the very opening sentence suggests, she is run over by his cart and crippled and abandoned in the streets. And out of just sort of a sense of honor and Catholic guilt and an impulse to do the right thing, the family takes her in.
NNAMDIIt is in this Italian household that she first learns about ice cream or Gelato as it's called. Can you read from that chapter about her trying ice cream for the first time?
GILMANCertainly. The Dinellos take her in and they have her living in their storefront where they manufacture ices against the health code. One Sunday Mr. Dinello lumbered down to the storefront carrying a small bottle. Salute, Ninella (sp?) . You helped me today. See, he said, we make the special dolce. I tried to scowl and appear indifferent but the truth was, anything to do with food interested me. Taking bottles of milk and cream from the icebox, Mr. Dinello measured their contents into a large porcelain bowl, cracked a few eggs with a theatrical flourish and whisked in generous scoops of sugar.
GILMANOh (speaks foreign language) , he sang gently. Now you. (speaks foreign language) , I parroted. He sang another line and waited for me to copy. Together in fits and starts we sang, strange beautiful arias in Italian. Mr. Dinello winked, the singing. She is the secret ingredient.
GILMAN"Usually when we made Italian ices they came out dripping in translucent chunks. Yet, now the dasher was coated in thick gobs of what looked sloppy butter. The white gooeyness was peculiar. The wisps of frosty steam rising from the container made it look almost dangerous. But Mr. Dinello rubbed his stomach. 'Delizioso.' Slowly, I closed my eyes and touched the spoon lightly to the tip of my tongue. Unctuous milky sweetness spread through my mouth like cold fire.
GILMAN"Silky and impossible, it dissolved into a flavor I'd never known, vanilla. Then slid down my throat like a salve. I suppose that my eyes must have widened with astonishment. And I couldn't help it. I smiled. It was a cataclysm of deliciousness. Gelato he called it. Gelato. The word itself was like music. I couldn't hide my delight. I grinned. It was the best food I had ever eaten. My fate, it had been set in motion."
NNAMDISusan Jane Gilman reading from "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street." In fact, Italians are credited with inventing modern ice cream.
GILMANThey are. It has a very, very long trajectory. It started back probably in the Middle East with Arabs and then merged with the Chinese, but the Italians, especially the Italian immigrants, I like to all the prophets of 20th century ice cream, because the wave of immigrants that came to the United States brought over ices and gelato recipes and started peddling them.
NNAMDIDid you bring any ice cream, today?
GILMANI did not, but you can get some tonight at 6:00 tonight.
NNAMDIWell, I have to take -- I have to take a short -- I have to take a short break to go out and get some ice cream. When we come back you can join the conversation, but you can still call now at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you know about the history of ice cream? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Susan Jane Gilman, author of the novel, "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street." She's a New York Times bestselling author of three works of nonfiction, including "Undress Me," and "The Temple of Heaven." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call shortly. If you have not, well, call now or send us an email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIAre you a fan of historical fiction? This novel is also a love story. Lillian set her sights on a handsome, albeit illiterate, young man named Albert. Tell us their story.
GILMANI really wanted to do an inversion of "Beauty and the Beast." Lillian is crippled. She's not considered traditionally attractive. She's smart, she's brainy, and Albert is mistaken for Errol Flynn, but he's severely dyslexic and illiterate. And so they become a team. They're each damaged and they each have strengths and they fit together. I loved writing this love story.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Brian, in Washington, D.C. Brian, your turn. Go ahead, please.
BRIANHi. I'd just like to start by saying that this novel sounds great. And I definitely look forward to reading it. I was wondering if you're familiar with a memoir written by a man named Alfred Kazin, called, "Walker in the City."
NNAMDIWhat's it about?
BRIANIt's basically, again a memoir, detailing one man's experiences in the Lower East Side. And one thing that I found very interesting, as a descendant of Jewish immigrants myself, is this compulsive, bordering on almost pornographic relationship with food. The descriptions in this memoir are still vivid…
NNAMDIThat's why I had to go out and get me some ice cream. Yes. Go ahead.
BRIANYeah, right. Basically, everything from seltzer water to jellies to delicatessen and things like that. Again, it had a sort of compulsive element to it and almost a burden. Again, it was filled so much with love, but this young man, the way he described it, it was like he was stuffed to the brim at all times by his grandmother. Could you speak at all to that? Did you find in any of your research or any your discussions, any kind of element like this?
GILMANWell, I haven't read that particular memoir, but I did do a lot of research. I went to the Tenement Museum. I went through my grandmother's notes from her own upbringing. What I found is that a lot of the immigrants, both Italian and Jewish, who were living down there at the time, they were hungry. They had -- they were starving. They were stuffed full of food out of almost a sense of an eternal hunger that they had come over with, which later, I think, for those of us who descended from it, became something a little different.
GILMANIt wasn't just survival, but it was love. And all of that collapsed together. The Italian immigrants tended to, in my research, eat a little better than the Jewish immigrants, if nothing else because they had better cuisine and they had perfected the art of taking ingredients that you didn't have to be rich to have and making phenomenal food.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call, Brian. At one point Lillian and Bert invent soft serve ice cream, which you based loosely on the real life Carvel Ice Cream story. Tell us about it.
GILMANTom Carvel is actually one of the first inventors of the American soft serve ice cream machine. And I learned about it because to research the book I found a Carvel Ice Cream store still in existence. And I went to it and I asked them if they'd let me work there. And I worked there for two days. And it was, you know, like a religious experience.
GILMANI got to make the Fudgy the Whale cake I had loved as a child, and the Brown Bonnet ice cream cones. And it's all done now, of course, with prepackaged formula. You put it in the machine and hit a button. That's it.
NNAMDIOn now to Susan, in Nokesville, Va. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANHi, Kojo. Hi. I just wanted to comment that I grew up -- of course my parents were Italian immigrants -- so ice cream was a very big part of our family -- grew up in Latrobe, Penn. where Joe Greubel, where the first sundae banana split was invented. And Ice Cream Joe was just all around us and grew up with the truck coming around and was always in love with ice cream. I was telling the person I talked to that I'm getting to retire from teaching in two years and my dream is to have an ice cream truck to drive around the neighborhood. And I just got done making peach ice cream and black raspberry ice cream for a cookout we're having tonight.
GILMANOh, can you come down here and serve some up?
SUSANSure, come on out to Nokesville.
NNAMDIOr you can come down to the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue tonight at 7:00 p.m., when Susan Jane Gilman will be speaking.
GILMANAnd there will be ice cream. We're doing an ice cream social. So you get both.
NNAMDIThe book is called, "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street." Well, woven into this novel is the history of the 20th century. And a fascinating juxtaposition, it's my understanding that prohibition a boon to ice cream makers and the end of it was devastating. Can you talk about why that was?
GILMANThis was surprising to me, too. Well, when prohibition came around, you had all of these tavern owners, barkeeps, what are you going to do with all of those saloons? They converted them into ice cream parlors. Not everybody wanted to go to a speakeasy and get arrested to socialize. So ice cream became huge. And then, of course, the depression came and prohibition ended. And it was devastating to the industry.
GILMANYou actually had ice cream bootleggers who made substandard ice cream with bad ingredients and sold it under the table to reputable establishments to pass off as the real thing.
NNAMDIThe assumption was that everybody was going to speakeasies. Who know ice cream took the place of a lot of alcohol drinking?
GILMANAbsolutely, in fact, more ice cream was ever served than gin or any kind of bootleg moonshine during the '20s.
NNAMDIOn to Louise, in Washington, D.C., Louise, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LOUISEHi, Kojo and guest. I remember when I was living in New York City in the 1980s there was a black woman who had worked on Wall Street and quit her job and opened up a gelato shop in the city. And the lines would be around the block. But I'm wondering -- what is authentic gelato? How can you tell the difference?
GILMANWell, I actually studied at the Gelato University. There's one in -- outside of Bologna, Italy. And I took a master class so I can tell you. The major difference between gelato and ice cream is gelato is made primarily with milk. Ice cream is made primarily with cream. Gelato has less sugar and it has less air.
GILMANSo it's denser, it's creamier, it's served at a lower temperature and the best news, it's actually lower in calories and fat than ice cream. I think I remember the store. It was called Gelato Modo. I went there and waited on the line.
LOUISEWow, yes, yes. You remember then. I couldn't remember the name. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. In doing your research for this book, you went to the Gelato University and took a master class?
GILMANI did. Well, I am the founder of the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies. And I heard about this and, you know, my husband and I are based in Europe for part of the year. So I went there and I took a three-hour master class. You can take classes up to three weeks. I learned how to make gelato. It involves all of my favorite things, math, science, homework and eating. So I had a great time.
NNAMDIIn this book, Lillian and Bert build a family-friendly brand and she ends up hosting a children's television show. Tell us about that and about the personal that she creates.
GILMANWell, the big juxtaposition with Lillian, the tension, is that she really hates kids. And she'd much rather drink bourbon than eat ice cream. But she's America's ice cream lady. So every Sunday she and her sidekick, Spreckles the Clown, in between taking sips off their flasks in -- behind the scenes, come out and entertain the children. And I based it on all of these very kind of kitschy, overzealous kiddie shows that I grew up with in the 1970s.
NNAMDIWe're still taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Who are your favorite fictional bad girls? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you know about the history of ice cream? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Her fall from grace as America's ice cream queen is, in part, because of her taste for the sauce. And we're not talking hot fudge here. As you point out, we love to take down our celebrities.
GILMANWe do. And maybe it's the same impulse when you're a little kid and you, you know, everybody loves to build sand castle and then destroy it or knock down a tower of blocks. I think we have that same impulse with people. The difference I see, is in America we also like to watch them get back up. And we want them to rise again. It's our past time.
NNAMDILillian gets in other trouble in this novel. She's got issues with the tax man, but she's something of, well, unreliable narrator. So in her telling, the "fell a little behind on their paperwork," eventually the Dunkle brand and it's kid-friendly image encounter some competition in the form of gourmet ice cream, in particular a certain brand they refer to as the Umlot (sp?) Company. Can you talk about the real company that launched the gourmet ice cream trend?
GILMANLillian calls it Umlot.
GILMANUmlot, the -- but it's really, of course, Haagen-Dazs, which comes in and starts franchising in the '70s. Haagen-Dazs actually was another inspiration behind the book because it was served up as Scandinavian ice cream. It had a picture of Scandinavia, a map, on the original lids. And this Danish-sounding name. It was created by two Russian Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, who also came out of the Tenements and started out almost penniless. And they had a vision.
GILMANAnd the thing that I sort of liked as I was writing this is I saw how the history of ice cream really interfaced with the history of America and the changes. In the '60s you had all these franchises all over the country. And that was also with the Civil Rights Act. All of a sudden, you know, McDonalds could serve billions and billions because it wasn't telling half of the people that they couldn't eat there. So you had this great democratization of food.
GILMANAnd then in the '80s, you know, right around Reagan, when things got a little more stratified, you suddenly had luxury ice cream, which, you know, this great democratic food for all became rarified.
NNAMDIYou answered a question that a lot of people have had for years, you can tell our listeners. Exactly what does Haagen-Dazs mean, again?
GILMANIt means absolutely nothing. It was made up. He -- the founder, his name is Rueben Mattus, he was Jewish. And he liked the way the Danes had behaved in World War II. He thought that they had been noble. So he wanted a Danish-sounding ice cream. So there are different stories that he took the word happy days and then sort of turned it into Haagen-Dazs, some sort of like Aristotle's Danish-Scandinavian-Swedish word. But no. It's nonsense.
NNAMDIIt's a completely made-up nonsense word.
GILMANRight. It would be as if you decided to call ice cream, you know, unglebenchten.
NNAMDIThat didn't sound bad.
NNAMDIHere is Joe, in Alexandria, Va. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEHi, Kojo. I just wanted to share my cute kind of story. I went out for the soccer team in 8th grade and, unfortunately, got cut from the team. Now, I'm a child of immigrant Italian parents. And so being kind of down and walking home from school, after realizing that I got cut from the team, I went to the -- I passed the local Carvel. And the global Carvel was owned by an Italian immigrant. So I went over, you know, and I said, you know, "Hi. You looking for anybody, you know, to work here after school?"
JOEAnd the guy was named Vic Guidaudi (sp?), really great guy. And he started talking to me in Italian, like, automatically. I was like, how does he know I'm Italian?
JOESo, you know, I started talking in Italian back to him. And he said, you know, "You want a job here?" He said, "I'll tell you what." He said, "Get your dad and have your dad," -- oh, first he asked me where we were from. And I said, you know, (unintelligible). So then he said, "Look, get your dad, come back this evening with your father when he gets home from work. And I want to talk to him." And I said, "Okay."
JOESo I went back with my dad and they talked in Italian and blah, blah, blah. You know, shooting the breeze. They were from nearby towns in Italy. And then after that he's like, "Okay. You can start tomorrow."
NNAMDIAnd how long did you work there?
JOEYou're not gonna believe it. I worked there -- I was just about -- I was still like 13 going on 14. I worked there until I was 18.
NNAMDIAll the way…
JOEYeah, I worked at the Carvel. And I heard you before, I made all the cakes, the Flying Saucers, Brown Bonnets, Cherry Bonnets. I mean, you name it, you know.
NNAMDIYou were ready for ice cream college by the time you were finished working there. What I love about this character, Lillian never gets tired of trying the next new thing. She eventually invents a series of frozen mocktails.
GILMANShe gets the idea. She's drinking a Brandy Alexander at Merv Griffin's house, as one does, and she thinks these would make marvelous milkshakes. The fact that she spends most of her time drinking alcoholic drinks probably clouds her judgment, but she thinks why not sell a, you know, a Tequila Sunrise milkshake? Why not sell a White Russian milkshake. And she gets that idea in the late '70s, which she feels this very emblematic of the times.
NNAMDI"The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street," it's a wonderful romp. The author is Susan Jane Gilman. She's a New York Times bestselling author of three works of nonfiction. She'll be speaking tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue at 600 I Street Northwest, downtown. You can get ticket information at our website, kojoshow.org. Thank you so much for joining us.
GILMANIt's been a complete pleasure. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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