On rare occasions, a particular taste or smell transcends the sensory and unleashes a flood of memory and emotion. For Proust, famously, it was madeleines. For me, last weekend, it was homemade peach ice cream consumed at a picnic table by a roadside produce stand in the heart of North Carolina peach country. As the ice cream melted in my mouth, thawing chunks of ripe peach released their pent-up perfume across my tongue, transporting me to another time and place.
The time: my childhood, nearly 40 years ago. The place: on the lawn behind my grandparents' house, in the dappled shade of an ancient willow oak tree. I was sitting on an upturned bucket at the elbow of my grandfather, hypnotized by the rhythm of his arm as he churned ice cream in an old wooden churn. Every now and then, he'd stop to add more ice and rock salt.
Sometimes he made banana, and sometimes vanilla. My grandparents lived within pit-spitting distance of peach country, though, and there was never any question about what the flavor would be if it was peach season. Nor was there any question where you'd find me. Though the churning seemed to take an eternity and I yearned to join my brothers and cousins playing badminton or kickball, I never budged from my spot next to my overall-clad grandfather. I knew that, when the churning was done, he'd give the dasher to the nearest kid to lick clean. And, scientific evidence notwithstanding, it was common knowledge that the ice cream clinging to the dasher was sweetest, the crème de la crème of the whole batch.
The homemade peach ice cream at Ben's, a little ice cream shop attached to one of the many produce stands in the Sandhills, is the closest I've come in my adult life to licking that dasher. The shop is more than an hour's drive from most points in the Triangle, but it makes a delightful weekend outing -- especially if you take the back roads and allow some extra time for shopping in the nearby potteries.
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Weather permitting, Ben's will remain open at least through October. If you get there in the next few weeks, before the local peach season begins tapering off, you might want to pick up a few peaches to take home. I've found that, when they're perfectly ripe and so juicy you have to eat them standing over the sink, they work their own kind of magic.