“Forget art. Put your trust in ice cream.” ~ Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love
“Holy moly, it was like the duck gave me hollandaise sauce in a shell.” ~ Diane Henley Waldrop, When Life Gives You Duck Eggs
On the west side of Seneca Lake, just where the southern hills begin to soften and the farmland becomes exquisite, sits an unassuming ice cream stand, owned and operated by a modest young family, that serves up the best ice cream you will find anywhere. Anywhere. Beautifully prepared ice cream, beautifully (yet unpretentiously) presented.
The ice cream, if I am to be as painstaking in describing it as Daniel and Elizabeth Hoover, owners of Spotted Duck (we’ll get to the name later) are in producing it, is actually frozen custard, a subset of ice cream—a not-so-subtle technicality that Daniel and Elizabeth will be happy to elucidate, if you ask. And ask you should, because they have thought a lot about ice cream, and are well prepared to unpack all the finer artistic and technical details behind making this most revered of treats richer, smoother, and more flavorful than anything you have likely tasted before.
I drove out to the Spotted Duck on a bluebird Finger Lakes Saturday morning, the sun bright and promising, the hills breaking out in blossoms and spring green. Pulling in I was greeted with a smile and wave by the Hoover’s helper, Zeke, sweeping up out front. Soon appeared Elizabeth and their four children, led by three-year-old Jack, the natural family ambassador, affable and wide open, cowboy boots on the wrong feet, full of genial energy and eager to engage. Smiles all around. This ice cream stand may have gone gourmet, but it surely isn’t pompous. One feels instinctively at home here.
Inspiration for taking roadside ice cream into the luxury food arena (it’s tempting to call their ice cream cuisine) came partially from the Hoovers noticing that while restaurants cover a huge range of styles and attitudes—corner diner to Michelin-rated—ice cream is generally, well, just ice cream. Why not take a cue from the fancy restaurants and give ice cream customers something really special? There’s a goal all right, but how exactly to reach it?
Job number one was to upgrade the product.
For two folks who grew up on organic farms and learned about good food literally from the ground up, the first steps were obvious: use natural, organic, locally sourced ingredients, and abstain altogether from additives and industrial-type ingredients like artificial colors and flavors, guar gum, corn syrup, and the like. That alone gets you on the road to making a pretty good ice cream, but why not step up again and instead make frozen custard—denser, richer, and smoother than even the best ice cream? That move pushed the needle way over, yet there was one more element in the process that would shoot their quality up in ways even the Hoovers did
Of course there’s more. There’s the Hoover’s garden where Elizabeth tends her mint, a variety brought from Lancaster by Daniel’s mother, used to flavor their cranberry-mint ice cream (which finds its way onto the menu as soon as the mint is harvestable, and comes off the menu as soon as the mint begins to turn bitter later in the season). And their backyard cherry tree, and their homemade cookies, and I mustn’t forget to mention the serving glassware and stainless flatware—no throwaway paper cups here for those eating in. Maybe you will find it as difficult as I did to choose a flavor or two for your homemade waffle cone, but no problem there either. Order a flight of four, or even twelve flavors, served on a custom made wooden tray, along with as many spoons as you and your friends and family require.
The Hoovers have made ice cream a gateway to expressing their passions about family, food, and community. They’re serving up some of the best the good ground has to offer, and as Elizabeth says, “We’ve made a place where families can come and comfortably enjoy a bit of the farm experience,” no little thing in an age when food is more often manufactured than grown, and one can easily live a lifetime without connecting with the source of one’s food. The Hoovers wanted to do something about that, and in their small way, have succeeded masterfully.
There are challenges of course, mostly in regard to efficiency. Producing ingredients and managing a tangle of small-scale ingredient sources is far more work than making a single call to a food service company. And there are long hours, and the multitude of jack-of-all-trades necessities inherent in micro-business. Daniel and Elizabeth seem to be conquering their challenges, maintaining an unreserved focus on quality. Perhaps the best evidence is that their operation thrives while genuinely visible—under continual, intimate scrutiny from customers who often visit precisely because they want retail relationships that keep them close in, able to explore and inspect and analyze unfettered by geography, bureaucracy, or layers of personnel. That, it so happens, is exactly what helps the Spotted Duck flourish.
Check out the Spotted Duck at www.spottedduckflx.com. Better yet, visit soon with family and friends. You’ll find the Hoovers and their flock at 999 State Rt. 54 in Penn Yan.