It's a bit like the grade school song: first comes love, then comes marriage. First comes May, eventually comes August. Soon temperatures will soar, humidity will settle and life will go on (albeit under an invisible wet wool blanket). Meanwhile, Little Rock will look to two new treat shops to keep itself literally and metaphorically cool.
For downtown workers, shoppers and tourists, the River Market's Le Pops offers fruity respite-on-a-stick, as well as a homage to the "grown-up" popsicle phenomena that has swept urban centers for two summers running. (Le Pops visionary Laurie Harrison, a mom and Little Rock school district reading specialist, had her fateful first encounter with gourmet popsicles on a family vacation near Destin in 2010.)
Le Pops opened in February, but it'll shine in July. With quirky flavor combos (candied bacon, mango chili, peach ginger, blackberry lavender and pb&j, to name a few), Le Pops is right in step with national tastes. Food trends follow, roughly, three- to five-year cycles that reflect social conditions and current notions of nutrition. During icky economies, people become more community oriented and place higher premiums on whimsy and nostalgia. But this is also the information era, and everyone fancies themselves subtly sophisticated. So today's consumers want kiddie-classics with exotic twists — a champagne cupcake, jalapeno infused chocolate, herbs and veggies pounded, distilled and cajoled into frozen treats. It's about the human condition, really — a desire for novelty, couched in the familiar and safe.
The ingredients at Loblolly Creamery: two twenty-something college-educated ice-cream lovers, a three-gallon churning machine named Bert and a modern take on an old-fashioned soda shop. Loblolly produces small-batch artisanal ice-cream — the likes of which may, according to analysts, finally dethrone cupcakes as the sweet treat of the minute.
Sally Mengel made ice cream at Muriel and Sebastian's
in Atlanta before moving to Little Rock in 2009. Arkansas native Rachel Boswell is a self-taught vegan and gluten-free chef who once worked at Rosalia's Family Bakery. In November the two founded Loblolly, named for Arkansas's state pine and inspired by "nature and the seasons," according to Mengel. Loblolly makes roughly 40 gallons of ice cream a week. Since early April, some of those gallons have been scooped into dishes, sundaes, shakes, malts and homemade gluten-free waffle cones, to be consumed at a salvaged antique bar-front in the sunny entryway of the Green Corner Store at Main and 15th Streets. "From 1908 till 1967, this building was a drugstore with a soda fountain," Mengel said. "Part of this is about taking the building back to its roots and help making the store a neighborhood hangout."
Like Le Pops, Loblolly uses high-quality local ingredients to concoct startling blends that juxtapose sweet against savory, salty against tart. Some of the flavors are vegan with coconut or almond milk bases, while some spike the standards (chocolate and vanilla) with taste-bud shockers such as red wine or cayenne pepper. Focaccia, which lists rosemary and olive oil as ingredients, is among the more interesting offerings. Loblolly even makes its own sprinkles — "Pipe sugar, let it dry and chop it up," Mengel said.
No matter how whimsical we become, traditional ingredients seem to spell "dessert" most often, to more people. Both Le Pops and Loblolly name Salted Caramel as their most popular flavor. And both represent a natural selection of frozen summery treats, gleaming from the best and the brightest of previous decades. They're like the frozen yogurt craze of the '80s but less corporate and more environmentally sound, and like the power-punching smoothies of the '90s, only with natural super-ingredients instead of unpronounceable chalky add-ins. Summer 2012 belongs to personable, nuanced treats, the better to handle our yearnings toward good citizenship and our anxiety-induced Peter Pan syndrome, of course.