I studied art my whole life, but formally at Ohio State University. I had a friend who was studying perfume in the chemistry lab and I became really interested in scent. I was incorporating scents into my art, but when I realized that ice cream is all about scent, I couldn’t think of anything else.
Even a simple vanilla ice cream is basically an edible perfume. When I say that, I don’t mean synthetic scents. Vanilla and chocolate and peppermint and coffee are all natural scents. And once I realized that you could tell stories by combining scents, my entire trajectory was transformed.
Within six months, I quit art school. I learned to make ice cream, but I also learned about the seasonality of ingredients, the provenance of ingredients, and how each ingredient has a scent and flavor. My first business was Scream Ice Cream, a little stand in an indoor market where I stood for ten hours a day for four years. I had a business partner who wasn't very interested in the business, so I closed that and we parted. Two years later, in 2002, I opened Jeni's back in the same market. And away we go.
It’s like writer’s block. No good ideas come to you until an hour and a half after the deadline has passed. Then, all of a sudden, all the good flavors come. So, I’ve learned to deal with that, because you are gathering inspiration the whole time. Eventually, enough inspiration and months of work comes out as that one great idea. It’s a never-ending Ferris wheel of collecting, connecting and creating.
I always tell people that I think with my whole body. We all do. Emotions are inspiration. When you’re inspired, that’s an emotion that your body feels. So, you’ve got to get into your body in order to get ideas into your brain. You have to be open to the idea that your body might get there before your brain does.
There’s a lot of focus on stoicism right now. Whole-body thinking is the opposite. It’s feeling your way through the world. If it feels right for me to make this move, I’m going to do it. I may be wrong, and this may fall apart, but I’ll learn something in that process that will inform the way I act, and then feel, the next time.
It’s so easy to think that if we just read enough books about how someone else did it, then we will never make any mistakes. That is never how I’ve done it. Whole-body thinking starts to feel like Jedi skills when you keep going, when you keep doing. Do, reflect, do, reflect. Eventually, you find yourself in a place of expertise or at least feeling comfortable in the process.
I studied art and continue to draw daily. Drawing helps me move my thoughts through my body. It helps shut off the part of my brain that can be the critic or might be spinning off in another direction. Some people find this state when they make music or play sports or go running. When you connect with your body in these immersive ways, you shut off a part of your brain and make space for your body and your emotions to send signals. It’s strange, but when you shut your brain down, ideas actually come. You get rid of the noise and are able to drill down.
Sensuality is connected to your senses and your emotions. That whole-body feeling. Sensuality is being in tune, in the moment, knowing what’s going on around you. When you are with someone else, this manifests as feeling the energy coming off them. You are curious about who they are, what motivates them. It’s a moment of heightened, shared awareness. Not just in your brain, but through your whole body.
When I was a kid, we went out to the forest every weekend. My grandmother is an artist and my grandfather was a retired doctor and a big fan of Thoreau. We would go out to the woods – me, my cousin, my sister and my grandparents – and we always had to spend two hours alone.
I hated it, because we would have so much fun together, but I would always go to this same oak tree and try to merge my energy with the energy around me, because I believed very strongly that there were gnomes living in the tree. And if I could sit there, quietly enough, with love radiating from my body, that they would come out eventually. I did this week after week for years and, of course, they never came out, but I was convinced that I got them to at least look at me and we were having a moment together.
I always say that I sound more and more like somebody from LA, but my philosophy on whole-body thinking actually comes from the middle of America, in the middle of the forest. There is an energy all around us, you have energy in your body and brain, and your senses are how you connect it all.
Ice cream on a cone draws you into a moment in a way that few other things can – because if you don’t pay attention to the ice cream, if you don’t engage with it, it disappears in front of you and melts all over you. That’s a silly metaphor for life, but it’s true. If you don’t engage with it, it slips away.
So, when eating a cone, you are first drawn into the moment by the shocking cold feeling of the ice cream. Then, you start to taste the sweetness. Then, it starts to volatilize in your nose and you get whatever scents are going on in that particular flavor. From there, you’re hearing the ice cream as you chew it.
I recently fell in love with Mint Chocolate Chip – a flavor that had been my least favorite all my life. Now, I love it so much because of the percussion that our chocolate chips make. A lovely crush that violates the lushness of the cream. An auditory opposite.
Then comes the cone. Ours are made on old cast iron machines by a family in Ohio and they’re flaky and crispy. Finally, ice cream is, of course, visual. As soon as people walk into a shop, you see how they are driven by color or texture or whatever it is they love. It’s a complete multi-sensory experience. It takes every one of your senses to enjoy an ice cream cone.
We’re making a stage show with each season of flavors. It all goes back to service for me. We’re connecting with and caring about the people in front of us. We’re reflecting the world around us.
A season of flavors always includes a little bit of pop culture. Every once in a while, we make a political statement – not to divide, but to unite. We always include a bit of punk rock, because that’s funny to us. The Midwest has this reputation of softness, the hobbit land of America, but there is this angst here, this whole unique style of punk music and punk attitude. It’s been here for a long time, you can feel it, and it informs us in ways. That art school mentality.
Oh my gosh. Probably our flavor Blackout Chocolate Cake. It's this dark chocolate with a cake crumble and a river of rich chocolate sauce, plus these crunchy chocolate chips. We threw everything at it and it's all dark. But it's also delicious – so let's hope that somewhere at the end of this year there's this light at the end of the dark tunnel where we get to enjoy that deliciousness.
Jeni Britton Bauer is an American ice cream maker and entrepreneur. A pioneer of the artisan ice cream movement, she introduced a modern, ingredient-driven style of ice cream making that has been widely emulated across the world but never duplicated. She founded Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in 2002 and remains the beating heart of the company. She is in charge of all creative output—from the ice cream itself to the supporting details that enhance the experience of eating it.
Support Jeni: @jenibrittonbauer @jenisicecreams
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