Origins of the Creemee

By Steve Taylor

For the Valley News

Published: 08-18-2016 10:33 AM

You’re from Vermont, you call it a creemee. New Hampshire, it’s just soft serve.

So let’s just concentrate on this peculiar Green Mountain thing, first its murky origin and then on what’s come to be the real thing, the maple creemee, because here in the summer of 2016 the maple creemee has become as big a part of the Vermont dietary aura as pasture-raised goat meat or sustainably grown organic kale. Well, no, it’s actually way bigger than any of that stuff.

And no, don’t try to fix the spelling of this commodity — it’s c-r-e-e-m-e-e and doesn’t need any A or Y or I in there.

Apparently six or seven decades ago somebody somewhere in Vermont got hold of a newfangled machine that could take a mix of ingredients in liquid form, freeze it and spit out a semi-solid ice cream-style product in a matter of seconds. He or she probably described the concoction as a “creamy” delight and to attract more interest may have switched the spelling to creemee.

That’s explanation enough for Burr Morse, a Montpelier maple producer and operator of a popular tourist-oriented sugarhouse business that features maple creemees. Morse, now 68, recalls going at age 8 or 10 with his parents to an ice cream stand for what he recalls were already being called creemees. Those were either vanilla or chocolate back then — the maple iteration would come later — and Morse claims to be one of the first in Vermont to offer maple creemees to the public.

If the word creemee worked for one ice cream stand it was good enough for many others over the years, to the point where it became firmly fixed in the vocabulary of tens of thousands of Vermonters. You might even say it’s become embedded in the DNA of the state.

And, interestingly, it has stayed home — cross the Connecticut River and few people will know what it is you’re talking about.

A creemee could be vanilla or chocolate in its early days, but today most folks think a real creemee is a maple creemee, one made with pure Vermont maple syrup. Recipes for real maple creemees vary slightly from one ice cream stand to another, but they all have a basic profile of ingredients that begins with a “base” consisting of milk, cream, sugar, vanilla and stabilizers formulated in a regulated dairy processing plant.

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Butterfat content is the most important factor in having the freezer machine function well and in creating the texture or “mouthfeel” of the product the consumer receives. Most Vermont maple creemee operations use a 5 percent butterfat base, although some specify higher levels which usually require custom mixing back at the plant supplying the base.

Maple syrup is added into the base in the freezer’s reservoir and the machine is good to go. A majority of maple creemee makers seem to prefer darker, more strongly flavored syrup for their mixes, while the rest go with medium, gentler-flavored syrup for their blends. The proportion of syrup to the base has to be carefully monitored; a creemee that’s too sweet will make the consumer thirsty and wary of buying another.

People in the real maple creemee business decry the proliferation of pretenders entering the field lately. They’re talking about establishments that offer what they claim are maple creemees that are actually made using imitation maple extracts such as those found in mass-market maple walnut ice creams.

“You can tell the difference right off between real and imitation maple flavor,” says Doug Bragg, an East Montpelier maple producer who operates a creemee stand in his retail sugarhouse and store.

Mike Frazer, a Windsor restaurateur who sells hard ice cream and soft-serve in dozens of different flavors, says real maple creemees are by far his biggest seller and he attributes that to his own “secret recipe.” It attracts regulars from as far off as 40 miles. The key is to have the authentic maple flavor plus a thicker consistency than the usual soft-serve product, he contends.

For high-volume creemee businesses you can’t beat the Orange County Sugarmakers and their stand at the annual Tunbridge World’s Fair. Last year it served more than 8,000 cones and cups during the fair’s four-day run. The group uses a 10 percent butterfat base it obtains from Kingdom Creamery in East Hardwick, Vt., and it resolutely refuses to use those cake cones with the annoying paper wrapper around their base. Proceeds from this lucrative enterprise fund generous scholarships for Orange County scholars studying agriculture and forestry in college.

Creemee culture hasn’t migrated across the Connecticut River yet, but the McNamara Dairy people in Plainfield are out to give it at least a toehold in the Granite State this summer. They’ve built a replica of a classic sugarhouse, mounted it on wheels and installed a soft-serve ice cream machine from which they’ll be offering real maple creemees at the upcoming Cornish Fair.

The creemee has already made it to New York City, though. A recent feature in the New York Post chronicles the establishment of a new store in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn called Corner of Vermont and goes into considerable detail extolling its “Vermont maple creemee.”

“(The creemee) features grade A maple syrup, maple sugar, milk and cream, which is then pumped with air to create pleasant soft peaks, unlike lesser versions which just lace syrup through vanilla ice cream. The result is a silky treat with intense maple aroma, a light caramel flavor and almost coffee-like aftertaste.

“Its distinctiveness is luring droves of neighborhood children and transplanted New Englanders alike,” the Post gushed.

Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden. He speaks and writes frequently on agriculture and rural life.