Take a Sundae Drive Through New England Dairy History
By: Cindy Scott
Have you had your fill of the tasty food trails featured in our September issue? Lap up a Connecticut ice cream adventure for dessert!
Indulging in ice cream these days can be a tad impersonal. You pull a half-gallon from a grocery freezer and you’re well on your way to enjoying a sweet treat, never knowing the first thing about the people (and bovines) behind it all. A few decades ago, no such thing was possible. You had to search out an ice cream shop, keeping in mind that the good ones were never more than a stone’s throw from a bustling dairy.
Speaking of throwing stones, that’s where the story of Michael’s Dairy in New London, Connecticut begins. Michael’s is a favorite among locals and road-tripping dessert aficionados alike (check out this recent mention at Jaunted.com). And the real scoop (if you’ll pardon the pun) on this now-famous ice cream shop’s history has been handed down through the generations in my family–almost as often as vanilla cones get handed over the counter!
Michael Buscetto was only nine years old when he started working for my great-grandfather, Roland Allen, who managed what was then known as the Mitchell Dairy. As the story goes, little Mike was caught throwing rocks at cattle and kicking them, too. For such offenses, he was harshly reprimanded. But the boy showed up early the next morning after feeling remorse and had taken care of each and every cow before my great-grandfather even arrived. It was an apology, and one that Roland happily accepted.
Ice cream has long been used as a reliable means of coaxing good behavior from obstreperous youngsters. Roland saw potential in Mike and resolved to take him under his wing, teaching him the ins and outs of managing a dairy. In the 1920s, the Mitchell Dairy provided milk to most of New London, and Mike was soon responsible for running the delivery route. As he grew, so too did his influence at the dairy. At some point, Roland must have treated his penitent protégé to a lesson in ice cream making. In 1943, when little Mike Buscetto was all grown up, he bought the property from the Mitchell family and Michael’s Dairy as we now know it was born.
Lots of Connecticut’s oldest and most well-established ice cream shops come from similarly small and quirky beginnings. The anecdotes told within their walls are as sweet to the ear as the ice cream they serve is to the tongue. Their roots are in New England’s family farms. Happily, many still operate independently and serve local communities today. Visit a couple, and you’ll never touch a grocery’s freezer handle again.
Michael’s Dairy and ice cream shop are now affiliated with the adjacent Mitchell College, and are run mostly by students in the school’s Department of Hospitality and Tourism. While we’re on the subject of collegiate creameries, another famous one is just a short trip up the road, on the campus of the University of Connecticut.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Like Michael’s, the UConn Dairy Bar is also near and dear to my heart. Operated primarily by students and faculty, the Dairy Bar is a UConn tradition with gallons of charm. It delighted me when I first toured the school and continued to do so as I attended. Now this, I thought, was New England! The quaint shop, with its checkered floor and red-topped stools, fits perfectly with the university’s idyllic, pastoral setting amid the rolling hills and pastures of rural eastern Connecticut.
If you’ve got little ones, stop by the adjacent UConn animal barns after your visit. Depending on the time of year, you’ll likely see baby foals, lambs, or calves. Visitors are always welcome. You’re even invited to watch the UConn dairy cows’ daily milking at 1:00 p.m. for an up-close and personal view of your ice cream’s main ingredient! See what I mean about the joys of bypassing that generic freezer section?
If you’re still not convinced, check out Sundae Drives, the complete Mystic Country ice cream trail put together by the folks at Mystic.org. Michael’s and the UConn Dairy Bar got a mention, along with other favorites like Mystic Drawbridge, Salem Valley Farms, and Buttonwood Farm (which also boasts a gorgeous sunflower field in the summer). What are you waiting for? Take advantage of Connecticut’s cool dairy traditions while the weather is still hot!
Photos: Courtesy of Althea Allen Wood, my wonderful 89-year-old grandmother who remains a daily consumer of ice cream.