Last year I went to Italy, and was delighted to discover that I’d unknowingly arrived during the same week that Florence was having its annual gelato festival. And I didn’t discover that fact until having already signed up for a gelato-making class, also in Florence. I spent a whole day wandering around the three piazzas in Florence, sampling the various artisinal flavors my gelato festival pass entitled me to; and then had yet another two scoops of the cioccolato fondente we made in class. In all I’d had about eight scoops over the course of a single day, and joked to friends when I got home that I’d reached my “Peak Gelato”.
…But recently I remembered an even bigger instance of gluttony.
In early 1992, I was wrapping up my senior year of college, living in a dorm a couple blocks from one of the Ben and Jerry’s scoop shops in the East Village. A pair of roommates in our crowd – Kim and Melissa – lived right by the shop, and they were the ones who heard about a very particular contest – Ben and Jerry’s was challenging all comers to tackle their “Vermonster” sundae. Anyone who did so – either alone or as part of a group – would have their name put into a drawing for a basket of prizes at each shop, and the winner at each shop was then eligible for the grand prize – a tour of the Ben and Jerry’s plant.
They pitched the idea to the rest of us. We were foodies – what’s more, we were college students. “This’ll be easy!” Kim said. “There’s six of us, we can polish off the whole thing no problem!” And we were indeed able to round up all six of our usual crowd – Kim and Melissa, Kim’s boyfriend Chris, our friend Ian and his girlfriend Shannon, and me.
We all met in the lobby of the dorm Ian and I were both in, and walked over to the scoop shop together; confident we had strength in numbers. “Hey, I know a great place we could get tacos after,” Kim said at some point. “We’ll still be hungry!”
We walked in, and Shannon and Melissa got us a booth while the rest of us marched up to the counter. “We’d like to have the Vermonster!” we said, proudly.
All three of the girls behind the counter turned to look at us, grinning in surprise. “You’re sure?”
Two of the girls laughed, while the third started grabbing scoops. “Okay, then,” she said, chuckling herself. The rest of us went to put our coats and such down in the booth while she was assembling her tools. “Okay, time for your first challenge,” she began, as we wandered back up to the counter. “You need to pick your flavors.”
And then she brought a plastic bucket out from under the counter, about the size of a child’s sand pail, and stood expectantly, scoop in one hand and the bucket in the other, preparing to start making up our sundae.
The Vermonster consisted of twenty scoops of ice cream, she told us, patiently enduring us debating the combinations of flavors. As we settled on one flavor or another, she would take a scoop or two – depending on our decision – and drop it into the bucket. Once we’d settled on that, she then added four sliced-up bananas, a whole pack of M&M’s, three crushed-up chocolate chip cookies, an entire crumbled-up brownie, a cup of chopped walnuts, an entire cup of hot fudge sauce, and an entire cup of strawberry sauce, and then she blanketed the entire thing with a two-inch-thick layer of whipped cream before dropping a single cherry on top. “Six spoons, right?” she said, pushing it towards us with a grin.
Chris brought it to the table where the rest of us were waiting, and we gave it a split’s-second nervous glance before one of us impulsively grabbed the cherry and popped it into their mouth. Then we laughed, grabbed our spoons and dove in.
We were there for an hour and a half. The whole time, other customers were walking by and gawking at us, sometimes prompted by the girls behind the counter – but sometimes they just caught sight of the mound in front of us and asked, eyes boggling, “what the hell is that?” “Are you really going to eat that whole thing?” One man asked us, astounded. We just chirped back, confidently, that yes we were. The first couple times that people spoke to us, we repeated our plan to get tacos after.
But then Ian’s girlfriend dropped out after only 20 minutes, pleading that she was full. Melissa soon joined her, and Kim hung in for another half hour before she too sat back in defeat. The longer we hung in, the more time we let pass between spoonfuls. Towards the end, Ian and Chris and I were the only ones still eating; I was starting to get a very uncomfortably full feeling was trying not to think of Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life movie. Chris and Ian were looking similarly sick. But we were determined to finish. At the end, we were pouring slugs of water into the bucket and mixing it into the melting slag at the bottom, trying to thin it out to the point that someone could drink it.
Finally we got to a point where we could see bottom and we figured the puddle was small enough that we could realistically call ourselves finished. “Done!” we called to the girls behind the counter. Chris slowly walked to the counter with the bucket, so our claim could be verified; then the rest of us slowly got up and each filled out the entry blanks for the contest. Kim asked if she could keep the bucket, and we waddled off into the night.
“We don’t want tacos any more, do we?” Kim asked. No, the rest of us said, we did not. We decided to just head back to Ian’s room at the dorm; but once we’d fussed with signing everyone in at the front desk, we didn’t even have the energy to get onto the elevator. Instead we all shuffled into one of the empty lounges in the lobby, where we sat on the floor with our backs to the wall, having the kind of conversation that you can only have when your brain is wired on sugar but your body is busy trying to metabolize over two thousand calories of butterfat. After about two hours we started getting unsteadily to our feet, hoping we’d digested enough for everyone to head to their own homes; Ian and his girlfriend wobbled to the elevator while Kim, Chris, and Melissa wandered back out the door, the bucket still clutched in Kim’s hand. I followed Ian and Shannon in a second elevator; I think I even sat on the floor there as well.
I don’t know how anyone else slept that night. I slept very long.
For a few weeks we’d forgotten all about it, save for occasionally cracking jokes about ice cream and tacos to each other. Then one afternoon I came home from classes to find a message from the scoop shop – I had been that location’s winner for the Vermonster challenge drawing. After laughing a solid two minutes, I called the others to give them the news, and went to collect my reward.
The same girls gave me a gorgeous wooden apple basket filled with Vermont food products – cheddar cheese, a box of Common Crackers, salsa from a Vermont manufacturer, a couple different kinds of cookies, some peanut brittle, and a jar of Ben and Jerry’s hot fudge sauce. There was also some Ben and Jerry’s swag like a t-shirt, travel mug, and a copy of their cookbook. I shared some of the food with the gang over the next few weeks, and we sometimes showed people the recipe for “The Vermonster” in the cookbook so they’d realize the scope of our achievement; but otherwise I kept everything for myself. A couple months later, when I finally graduated, one of my first acts was to buy an ice cream maker so I could finally try some of the recipes (“cooooool, I can make my own Cherry Garcia!”)
That was 20 years ago, and I’ve lost touch with nearly everyone. But last I heard, Kim still has the bucket and uses it as kitchen storage – it can hold a ten-pound bag of rice, she told me once. I’ve long since gotten a bit too big for the t-shirt, and turned it into a reuseable grocery bag; the apple basket holds a big collection of knitting projects-in-process. I lost the travel mug in one of my moves. But the book I still have, and fall back on it every year – I’m gearing up to make a batch of their kiwi sorbet this week, in fact.
But only a pint. There really is such a thing as too much.