Treats for the Palate Blend With Region’s Changing Palette
One way to quickly appreciate how Southern California has been flavored by its settlers is to have an ice cream cone at Fosselman’s on Main Street in Alhambra.
The Fosselman family has made ice cream in the area for nearly eight decades and has run the Alhambra shop since 1941. Behind the frosty glass freezer doors, the multicolored barrels of ice cream pay edible tribute to the waves of newcomers to our region.
Black walnut, licorice and lemon custard are flavors popular in the East and Midwest and remind us of those who moved west over land, across the prairies. Spumoni and lemon ice are remnants of the Italian neighborhoods that once bustled from the west San Gabriel Valley to Chinatown. Sweet corn and mango flavors were suggested by Latino customers.
In the last two decades, the largest group of immigrants to Alhambra and adjacent cities such as Monterey Park and South Pasadena have been Asians. To outsiders, it might seem as if the area has been rapidly remade into a suburban Chinatown. But the Asian influx has had its own variations and nuances, which also are preserved in flavors at Fosselman’s.
Japanese Americans were once the largest Asian group in the area; hence the green tea and red bean flavors. Litchi, a Chinese fruit with translucent flesh like calamari, is a current favorite. More recently, Filipino flavors such as coconut-based macapuno, and ube, a purple sweet potato, have made their way into the ice cream.
The Fosselmans stock 48 flavors at a time, but now have recipes for about 200. With that inventory, they are able to serve seemingly every old-timer or newcomer imaginable.
“We have such a variety, we can make something that will appeal to everyone,” said co-owner Chris Fosselman, part of the family’s third generation to run the business.
The ice cream trail can be followed back to 1919, when Christian Anthony Fosselman began making ice cream at the family’s Waverly, Iowa, bottling plant. The family business had begun in the 19th century as a brewery, operated with the expertise Peter Anthony Fosselman brought with him from Ingelheim, Germany.
Along with beer, Christian Fosselman produced ginger ale, cream soda, sarsaparilla and other sodas. Prohibition, in 1920, limited the business to soft drinks and ice cream, which was frozen using blocks of ice cut each winter from the Cedar River.
With the advent of mechanical refrigeration and the promise of a booming market to the west, Christian brought his young family to Pasadena in 1924. He moved the business to South Pasadena in 1936, opening the Alhambra ice cream plant in 1941 and a Highland Park shop in 1946, all run by various sons. The South Pasadena and Highland Park stores closed in the 1970s, as new malls drained business from those local shopping districts.
The remaining Alhambra shop has been run by brothers Chris, 34, and John, 30, since they bought out their uncles and father in 1990. However, the men from that second generation of the ice cream dynasty, all in their 70s now, still work there most days.
Fosselman’s is stuck between huge auto dealers and a huger Target store, which the city considers trophies in its redevelopment efforts. Alhambra officials are also quick to boast that they recently landed a Starbucks at the other end of Main.
But Chris and John have thrived by working against the dominant forces of business today. They are not going global. Bigger is not better to them. You will never, if they can help it, see a Fosselman’s franchise on every block.
Fosselman’s wears its quaintness on its sleeve. The shop has eight tables set among jars of penny candy, jellybeans and saltwater taffy. It is popular among senior citizens, with retirement home vans often unloading there. Some afternoons, a line of wheelchairs is parked outside like Harleys in front of a biker bar.
At the same time, the Fosselmans are always trying new things. On most mornings, Chris and John start the day making the ice cream themselves, in back of the store.
By whipping up their own ice cream in small batches, they can create new flavors just about whenever they like. “The big guys have to run 1,000-gallon batches. We can make four [3-gallon] cans. It’s easy for us to come up with a specialty flavor and fine-tune it,” John said.
That fine-tuning has enabled them to create a niche supplying restaurants and specialty distributors with custom orders. It also has allowed customers to play a role in the ice cream’s creation.
The brothers often get flavor ideas from customers, who go to great lengths to teach them about tastes they have never encountered. After several failed attempts to capture the flavor of the Filipino sweet potato in ice cream, a customer had relatives in the Philippines send over some ube syrup, which he faithfully brings to the store.
Chris and John will also call customers when a favorite flavor is ready. Taped to the wall of their back room are notes with instructions such as “Call Billy Chang when litchi sorbet is ready.”
They accommodate their clients, even if they do not share their tastes. Recently, they filled an order for ice cream flavored with Midori, a Japanese melon liqueur, and wasabi, a horseradish paste. “It actually burns when it’s going down,” John confessed.
By opening themselves to all tastes, the Fosselmans have created an institution that is universal without being uniform. It is a useful example for society.
America has long been compared to a melting pot, one in which our various national origins blend into a homogeneous mixture. But many found the melting pot an unappealing idea, claiming that it demanded we all be alike by burying our pasts, leaving us with a common blandness.
Fosselman’s ice cream may be an alternative to the melting pot. Rather than differences melting away, they can be preserved in their full flavor and blended into the rich common base of ice cream. Instead of everyone eating the same thing in the same setting, we can all bring different tastes to one place.
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