When I’ve mentioned recently to people that I have a novel coming out soon about Hanukkah set in a south London ice creamery, I’ve noticed more and more people giving me ‘the look’.
You’ll know what ‘the look’ is of course, everyone does. It’s that expression of doubt mingled with a little disbelief that crosses someone’s face when they think you’re doing something absolutely crazy. Crazy like, say, writing a winter novel set in an ice creamery.
But there is method to my madness, I promise (there generally is, though sometimes I have to look really hard to find it).
When I first sat down to write ‘Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery’, two things happened. I happened to check Facebook, and this memory cropped up:
It’s my daughter Sarah, from when she was about two years old, standing outside of the Globe Theatre in London and eating chocolate ice cream.
I smiled widely on seeing the image, as parents tend to do, before closing Facebook down and going back to my work. But after five minutes of sitting, my laptop on, and words not quite leaping from my mind to the page, I went back to Facebook and opened up the image again.
You see, in my original plan for ‘Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery’, River worked in a book store. She was going to be the deaf woman with a love of words, and each chapter was going to be named for a famous romance (at my wedding, incidentally, I gave out favours that consisted of a vintage tea cup and saucer filled with Australian sweets and a tag which had a famous romance quote upon it. I slaved over those for weeks, picking and choosing over one hundred of my favourite quotes about love). But looking at the image of Sarah, eating her ice cream in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, it was like a bolt of inspiration trickling down my spine.
Because River, of course, had to work in an ice creamery. She just had to. I knew then and there that she would work with food and flavour, and that each chapter would be named for a flavour relevant to the content of that stage of the story. Chapter one, ‘strawberry’, is named for a basic ice cream flavour, followed by ‘apple’ and ‘orange’. But as the story opens up more, and as we learn more about River and Cohen and the events which shaped their lives, the flavours grow more complex too… from ‘jaded green tea’ to ‘sunflower seed’. Jaded Green Tea, in particular, was a favourite flavour of mine. I lived in China for a time, and the character of Rushi was inspired by my neighbour there, this charming lady:
I have back story about every single flavour River ever invents in the novel, most of which I cut in editing, but I’ve saved for myself in my ‘cut but not forgotten’ word doc. Jaded Green Tea, I decided, River invented after the death of her adoptive father, and I originally had a scene written which showed Rushi crying while stirring a batch of the ice cream, mourning her husband and the love of her life.
The more I wrote of ‘Hanukkah and the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery’ (I wrote a chapter or two over an eight week period) the more I learned about ice cream in general. I’ve always been a fan, and my husband will remember (hopefully fondly) the first part of our honeymoon, which we spent in Venice, where I dragged him from gelateria to gelateria so I could try different versions of melon ice cream (and yes, there is a reference to this in ‘Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery). I also dragged him on a walk across the city so we could see a) where the courtesans once displayed their naked bodies for sale and b) where they filmed Indiana Jones, so it wasn’t entirely an ice cream based trip.
I’m a meticulous researcher when it comes to my work, and one of the earliest facts I discovered about ice cream was that the modern ice cream, served in a cornet, was actually invented by a Victorian woman named Agnes Marshall (who also invented the earliest version of the modern ice cream dispenser). And learning this warmed my heart, because I loved the idea of my heroine River, deaf but independent and running her own business in London, working with a product invented by another independent woman who was from London (Agnes Marshall, by the way, also was the first to suggest using liquid nitrogen in ice cream making, which is how celebrated chef Heston Blumenthal makes his today).
I also discovered that Ben and Jerry, of the famed ice cream brand (and Jewish men too, like Cohen in my story… in fact, Ben’s surname is Cohen) set up their first store in Vermont (known for snow and cold weather) because they themselves learned that ice cream in served in a cold climate is proven by science to warm the body up. Also, did you know that Ben Cohen suffers from an inability to smell or taste food? That’s why Ben and Jerry’s normally is served with chunks, because he tastes things by texture. This was another fact which made me smile… I had River, my deaf heroine, expressing herself through food, something Ben Cohen did too.
So next time you’re out on a cold and snowy day, maybe instead of reaching for the mulled wine or hot chocolate, you could reach for a scoop or two of ice cream? (or ice cream in hot chocolate, which I heartily recommend – or even better… a scoop of Vanilla bean gelato served with a measure of hot espresso poured over it, or – better still – a measure of hot espresso mixed with Irish Whiskey. Trust me).
My book is out in THREE DAYS, would you believe it? I’m so excited to share this story and discuss more of the details about it with you. Next week I’ll be posting a blog about deafness and BSL, and the week after, a blog about Hanukkah and Judaism, so hope to see you here again soon.