There are a few different ways to go, when the ice cream craving hits. There are those that seek out the purest, best ingredients; they want their strawberry ice cream to be made with fresh, locally-picked organic strawberries, combined with a little whole milk and heavy cream, a dab of sugar, and mixed by hand using lots of rock salt and ice. This is the traditional ice cream ideal, the ice cream you see in movies: ice cream to be eaten with someone you love, under the shade of a tree, or with feet hanging off the edge of a dock on a late Summer day. Others want to shock their palates with crazy flavor combinations, like bacon and rosewater ice cream, or lavender-scented brown bread ice cream. Some go the gelato route, letting each dense spoonful of the low-butterfat frozen treat mentally transport them to an Italian villa.
When I crave ice cream, though, it’s much less about the ice cream itself, and more about the warm, fuzzy childhood memories surrounding the after-supper trip to the soft-serve stand. It would be about 7:00 PM, with the Summer sun just barely beginning to set, when a friend’s dad would swing by the house to see if you wanted to join them for ice cream. There would be a long line of excited kids busily trying to choose their flavors, a few more kicking at the dirt, exhausted in their dirty baseball uniforms, and a few surly teenagers trying fiercely to be much, much too cool to be eating ice cream. After you worked your way through the line and made your selection, you’d either eat your ice cream in the car, taking great care to keep the giant mass of ice cream under control with your tongue, so that it wouldn’t drip onto the seats and risk the wrath of your parents. Or maybe you sat outside at a picnic table in the twilight, letting the dark orange sky turn gray, and finally black, while you happily slurped and munched on your nearly-finished, lightly soggy cake cone. It’s within this ice cream-eating scenario, that Red’s Dairy Freeze in South Portland fits so perfectly.
Started in 1952 by Leonard “Red” Bolling, a former milkman with the Hood company, Red’s Dairy Freeze began its life as a Tastee-Freeze franchise, right when Dairy Queen was leading the “soft serve” boom in Southern Maine. Business boomed, and the ice cream stand changed its name in 1965 to “Red’s Dairy Freeze,” where it has been in operation ever since. Red’s suffered a brief setback in the Summer of 2010; an electrical fire, which erupted at 3:00 AM in the middle of May sidelined the business for nearly ten months, including much of the peak Summer season. The original Red’s building, which had been completely gutted by the fire, was razed and a full-scale barn-shaped replica was built in its place. In March of this year, the iconic “Red’s Dairy Freeze” sign was once again spelled out in big red letters, and a huge soft-serve cone was perched proudly above the small overhang above the ordering window.
It didn’t take long for the crowds to return, some of the people lifelong Red’s customers, and for the lines to stretch out to the street. And for good reason: Red’s Dairy Freeze is the kind of classic Maine neighborhood soft serve stand that you find in every small town, even when that “small town” is just over the Casco Bay bridge, surrounded by sizable shopping centers. They serve not just the standard soft serve classic chocolate, vanilla, and twist cones; there are also usually a few more “custom” flavors, like Peppermint or Coffee. There are also several low-fat and frozen yogurt options in additional flavors, including Black Cherry and Rum Raisin, which each contain around 40 or 50 calories per 4 ounce serving. As you might expect, these lighter options don’t have quite the same thick, creamy texture you expect from soft serve, but the light, airy diet versions provide a nice alternative. I prefer to order a “small” size of the real, high-test stuff (and what a relief to find a place that still serves a “small” small, for only a buck and a quarter!).
Like any self-respecting Maine ice cream stand, the soft serve options don’t stop at cones and cups. You can expect the full complement of hot fudge and sundae toppings, handmade soft serve ice cream sandwiches made with fresh cookies, as well as the “Nor’Easter,” Red’s Dairy Freeze’s answer to the Dairy Queen Blizzard. A laundry list of mix-ins, from Butterfinger bits to handfuls of Nerds candy are available to be swirled into your choice of ice cream flavors. And the menu isn’t the only thing about Red’s that’s old-school; you’d be hard-pressed to find anything on the menu priced higher than a couple of bucks.
The classic frozen treats being passed out the window at Red’s every single night are only the first part of the story, however. Sure, it’s good soft serve. But it’s the people, in this case, that make the place: Customers who have been visiting Red’s their whole lives, whose parents have been visiting for their whole lives. A staff of kids who know everyone in the neighborhood, and who grew up just down the street, saving money for their first cars and chatting quickly with the occasional friends that appear in their line each night. Owners who have been in the soft-serve business from the beginning, who have seen their business falter when disaster struck, but who rebuilt better and stronger than before. It’s the people surrounding Red’s Dairy Freeze that make it so special: a rock-solid community, as well as a neighborhood ice cream stand.