The Artist Abroad

Gaga over dirty ice cream

12:57 AM August 10, 2011

New York—Until recently I hadn’t thought much about dirty ice cream. Hadn’t thought about it since the last century, when I was kid on the streets of Manila and Quezon City. However, this past June on a working visit to the fabled, noble and ever loyal citadel, staying at a nearby boutique hotel, I wandered over to the Sunday market in Salcedo Village, which I fervently hope remains in place. It’s a bright spot, in some ways re-creating a town square in a Makati whose supreme deity is Real Estate, its prophets the Ayala dons.

One of the first vendors I spotted was a man and his ice cream cart. The sight reminded me that a year ago, in the plaza of Basco, capital of the Batanes Islands, I espied a young mamang sorbetero.  The mamang sorbetero (and I cannot ever recall an aleng sorbetera) was a street fixture of my childhood. The colorfully painted cart that he pushed around, announcing his presence with a bell, symbolized a guilty pleasure that my friends and I indulged in–“gulity,” as the grown-ups sniffed at it, calling it “dirty ice cream” and predicting gastrointestinal disasters if we ever ate it. (Nowadays, here in New York, such ice cream would be labeled “artisanal,” imbuing it with a sophisticated allure and enabling its vendor to charge higher prices.) Dirty ice cream was frowned upon by our elders as the sorbetero was himself purportedly not exactly a model of hygiene, and therefore his process of churning out the product was just as suspect. What water was used? What about the salt? And why did he not wash his hands after we had bought his product and he had handled our crumpled peso bills?


In marketing terms, dirty ice cream was a nonentity, way below Magnolia or Selecta, the well-known commercial and nationally marketed brands of ice cream.  These brands still exist (though today Magnolia is owned by Nestlé, and alas, the flavor has declined, while Selecta is now a Unilever brand).  Back then, Magnolia was a standard but welcome treat and Selecta, using carabao milk, was even better. I don’t know if it still does this but Magnolia would come out with its Flavor of the Month. For instance one month atis or custard apple would be featured, and another month, it would be langka or jackfruit.  And Magnolia had an ice cream parlor on Echague Street, not far from the Quinta Market, and later on, one on Aurora Boulevard a couple of blocks away from St. Paul’s College then, University now. Both parlors are gone, the pleasures of lingering over a sundae, a thick milkshake, or a banana split in such parlors forever consigned to nostalgia.

Dirty ice cream was right there on the street, however, and cheaper, and its flavors were uniquely local: mango, cheese, ube, buko. Companion to street ice cream were ice drops, and I remember one brand, and perhaps it was the only one around: Sison’s Ice Drops. Mongo and buko were my favorites; I loved the nuttiness of the mung bean, where as you sucked the confection, the beans would emerge and their nubby texture would contrast marvelously with the soft cream.  Or the way that buko rewarded one’s palate with its semigelatinous, sweet (but not as sweet as macapuno) taste. Sison’s, having a brand name, was above dirty ice cream but still ranked below Magnolia and Selecta, for no other reason than, as far as I can make out, like dirty ice cream, it too was local. Today, alas, Sison’s is no longer with us.


I never got ill from eating dirty ice cream as a kid, and I suspect my digestive system was strengthened rather than weakened by eating not just this dairy treat but other street foods as well. Chicharron doused with sukang may sili, and served up in a newspaper cone. Silky and sweet taho.  Warm balut at night downed with San Miguel (though the San Miguel would come later, when I was older and late nights required ice-cold beer to swig as friends and I polished off fertilized duck eggs, bought from an itinerant vendor, the balut wrapped in burlap and kept in a woven basket).

My system held up last summer as well, when I couldn’t resist the Proustian moment and bought a cone of keso ice cream from the sorbetero. (The only other place I have had cheese ice cream outside the Philippines is Hokkaido, Japan’s largest northernmost island). It was delicious. And I remembered that I had had “dirty” ice cream in Basco the year before, though there I didn’t hear the term “dirty ice cream.” Perhaps that was because you couldn’t buy Magnolia or Selecta or any other brand of commercial ice cream, in this northernmost province. Flying them in would price them beyond the reach of the average Ivatan. (The cost of flying to Basco via Seair, by the way, is outrageous, as it is the only airline that plies the route from Manila. High way robbery!) There was therefore no comparison to be made.

Of course, more than as a denominator or gauge of hygiene, “dirty” disparages the indigenous. Think of the term “dirty kitchen,” referring to what in Tagalog would be called batalan (the open-air back porch of the native home), where the meaning of “dirty” is completely absent. Something is added in translation and thus, something is lost as well. A kitchen is where all the messy preparations for cooking, preserving, etc. are undertaken—a necessary process but one never thinks of a Western kitchen as intrinsically dirty. Clearly, “dirty” tells us more about the beholder rather than any innate qualities of the traditional native kitchen. This same rationale, I am convinced, explains the existence of the term “dirty ice cream.”

The natives plain and simple were dirty. Thus, during the 1899 Philippine-American War the Filipino guerrilla was seen as a “dirty” fighter. Not following conventional forms of warfare, he was thereby less than human, scum to be cleansed. The war was a mission to disinfect the nation: By killing the Filipino revolutionary fighters, the Yankee soldiers were cleaning and clearing the land, eradicating its “dirt” and in its stead planting the seeds of a supposedly more enlightened future—to create a là Hemingway, a clean, well-lighted place.

You might ask about the “Gaga” in the title of this piece. I began by wondering about the genesis of the term “dirty ice cream” and turned to Google. The first item to pop up was Lady Gaga’s “Dirty Ice Cream,” and you can hear her singing a song whose refrain is “Don’t be dirty ice cream,” her admonition to a potential swain who presumes too much.  (As to why Gaga is the first to pop up, apparently according to a recent New Yorker piece, she has enough clout to negotiate with Google. When it comes to business, the Lady ain’t no gaga.)

Where had she heard the term? Had she had “dirty ice cream”? On her Gagapedia, I found out that she first heard the term from an ex-boyfriend “who told her that people going to bars in New York are like ‘dirty ice cream.’ They go to the bar and taste good the first time but became dirty ice cream the following times.” (Had he had “dirty ice cream”?) The moral judgment in that assessment isn’t too far off from the way street ice cream has been represented. It is through such telltale signs that the insidiousness of empire is revealed.

Copyright Luis H. Francia


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TAGS: Culture, dirty ice cream, Food, Health, Lady Gaga, Lifestyle, Magnolia, Manila, Philippines, Selecta, sorbetero, sorbetes, Travel
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