Cone-traversy on 24th Street

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Louis-Philibert Debucourt’s “Frascati” (1807) shows a scene from the Parisian glacerie.

The St. Francis Fountain, as we all know, has been operating on 24th street in San Francisco’s Mission District for a very long time.  The self-described “old-fashioned confectionery” says it opened in 1918, and claims to be the oldest operating ice cream counter the City.  Its longstanding 1940′s interior was renovated about ten years ago: a Formica soda-bar with red vinyl upholstered swivel stools, period clocks and neon, banquettes, a burgers-and-shakes menu, and a stern attitude about the proper use of an ice cream cone.

Last weekend I went to the St. Francis with a friend and visitor to the City who, to protect from scandal, we will call “V”;  She is a petit, attractive woman of means, known in some quarters of the sports world.  We were accompanied by a gay couple (“D” and “L”, if you must know), and their two-year-old son to whom we will to not even pseudonymously refer due to his age and the delicate situation I will now describe.

We seated ourselves, all in a row, at the long Formica counter, manned (and yes, it was an all-male staff save one rather bewildered-looking lady scooper) by smartly-dressed young hipsters clothed in the lean styles and mustaches the 1960s.  I ordered a single scoop of Mitchell’s coconut ice cream in a cup.  V. asked for a small vanilla cone.  The lady-scooper, new-on-the-job, took our orders. D., and L. were served in turn, followed by their young son, who (fortunately, as you will note) opted for a dish rather than a cone.

Food can be taken quite seriously in San Francisco.  The manager of the St. Francis rushed from the kitchen to confront V.  You could hear him struggle to remain civil as he spoke.  “Cones are not served at the counter.”  He cast an accusing look at the lady scooper (who had actually prepared the cone), and then at V. for entrapping the staff. “The cone,” he recited, in a tone one might reserve for the Book of Matthew, “is by tradition a carrying device for take-out ice-cream.” We were invited to consider these also-unthinkable analogies: “serving hamburgers at the tables in paper bags”, “sodas in to-go cups”, “a waiter bringing ketchup packets.”

Our lady scooper had slunk away by now (no doubt to face more dire analogies later).  The manager approached us, arms extended, in an apparent attempt to gain control of the cone.   V. was unswayed: “I can have the scoop in a bowl, with the cone on top. Like a hat.”  As she spoke, she moved the cone close to her chest, then motioned — perhaps, batted — the manager away. She fixed her gaze on him. “I like the cone,” she said.  There would be no more discussion.

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The St. Francis Fountain on 24th Street in San Francisco

And so the bowl came, amid grumbled disclaimers from the manager.  In went the ice cream cone, inverted, and so, partially defused.  “This is a one-time event!” muttered the manager.  He had lost control of the shop(pe), and he knew it.  Helpness now, he addressed the female staffer:  “If the owner were here, he would say the very same thing.”

V., victorious, possessing both cone and bowl, surveyed the crowd.  But her fellow diners seemed to side with the manager.  There were murmurs and mutual glances among the crowd.  V. turned her back on them, picked up the spoon, and ate.

The St. Francis Fountain’s stock is in it’s purity of tradition.  It’s a play that often employs a heavy dose of kitch.  Schtick, even.  The old-time appeal is an unsubtle respite from food innovation, and its relentless stress of choice.

Just one block away, a competing ice cream shop trades in exotic futures.  The transgressive mecca for foodies is called Humphrey-Slocum, after the main characters in 1980′s BBC television series “Are You Being Served?”.  The counter looks like that of a dry cleaner, as it may well have been recently.  From a barren mini-storefront they serves up flavors like FlufferNutter, Thai chili lIme, “Jesus Juice,” and, of course, several combinations of bacon.  Each weeks’ flavors shock anew on Twitter, Facebook, and, as we are in San Francisco, Google Plus.  The food press lights up with regular commentary and adoration.

It’s a stand-off on 24th Street.  The Saint Francis staring down Slocum’s “ice cream with attitude.”  Simple chocolate and strawberry against “Skull splitter,” “Pink grapefruit tarragon,” and “Strawberry Candied Jalapeño”.  The scooper is, say, a pink-haired man who favors Comme Des Garçons.  Because it is an affront to transgressivism, “vanilla” at Humphey-Slocum is spelled as the neologized obscenity “v*nill@” so it can appear on the menu.

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Detail from “Frascati”

The prevailing factors for our recent choice of The St. Francis were ambiance and — literally and figuratively — vanilla.  Being told what we can and can’t do there achieved its goal, to underscore the traditional authenticity of the experience.

But inappropriateness of a sit-down cone appears to be the flip side of Humphrey-Slocum’s drag show.   The very first ice cream cones evolved in France from flat wafer-like waffles, similar to the modern Italian pizzelle, that were eventually side-rolled into a “cornucopia” to contain both savory and sweet foods.   Food historians Robert J. Weir and (wife) Caroline Liddell, who have written several books around the history of ice cream, have produced the earliest documented use of the ice cream cone: circa 1807 at a fashionable café in Paris, back when Napoleon I was king of France.  In the print the couple uncovered, a elegant woman  (who looks rather similar to V.) is shown seated at a table licking an ice cream cone.   There is no bowl or spoon in sight.