John Harrison eats ice cream for a living. As the official taster for Edy's Grand Ice Cream, in Oakland, California, Harrison figures he has personally sampled about 300,000 gallons of the sweet stuff over the past 19 years, from light "whites" such as vanilla and butter pecan to rich bordeaux: mint chocolate chip and blackberry swirl. His sensitive taste buds — insured for $1 million — can detect a half-percent variance in butterfat content. It's a gift, says the 59-year-old expert, who is careful to avoid taste invaders such as pepperoni and garlic during the week.
Harrison spends a typical workday slicing open 60 cartons of Edy's with a two-foot blade. "You taste first with your eyes," he says. "Does the ice cream look tasty? Are there enough pecans?" Then he waits for the ice cream to warm to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Most ice cream is eaten at 5 degrees Fahrenheit, he says, but the higher the temperature, the stronger the flavor. Finally, he dips his gold-plated spoon (anything less leaves an unpleasant aftertaste) into each carton, swirls, smacks, and spits. Is the texture too icy? Too grainy or unamusingly uncreamy? One disappointing dollop is all it takes to banish a batch; the company donates more than a half-million gallons to food banks every year.
Harrison also makes regular visits to supermarkets around the country for random taste tests. He wants to see if the product has become gummy, icy, or otherwise icky on its way to consumers. All of which begs the question: What does an ice-cream man do for dessert? Harrison claims that at home on the weekends, he eats at least one bowl of his favorite flavor: vanilla bean. A bit bland, no? The expert demurs. "Vanilla bean is one of the most exotic flavors in the world," he says. "It's made from orchid plants in Madagascar. Put a few bananas and some cinnamon on there, and it's anything but plain."
A version of this article appeared in the July 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.