Texas Ice Cream Crank-Off

Food, Hometown Cooking, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on May 27, 2010
Jason Janik Attendees line up for samples during the 14th annual Killis Melton Ice Cream Crank-off last summer.

G.G. Cain, 64, steadily cranks the handle on his 30-year-old ice cream freezer while Jerry Williams, 59, holds down the lid during the Killis Melton Ice Cream Crank-Off in McKinney, Texas (pop. 54,369). The men have a batch of mango and habanero chili pepper ice cream in the works that they hope will be a prizewinning crowd-pleaser.

“We’ve been testing it for weeks,” Cain says about the original recipe. “It’s sweet with a little bite at the end.”

Nearby, Kevin Saindon, 37, also of McKinney, attracts amused onlookers with a pedal-powered contraption built by his father, Robert Saindon, 66, of Tescott, Kan. (pop. 339). The elder Saindon connected the back wheel on an old bicycle to the crank on the ice cream freezer and discovered the best incentive ever to exercise for 30 minutes: 2 gallons of homemade butterscotch pecan ice cream.

During the 14th annual crank-off last July, 34 ice cream-making teams competed in six flavor categories: vanilla, chocolate, fruit, gourmet, nut and you-made-what? Judges and the crowd of 3,000 selected the winners, who received trophies for their frozen confections.

Many recipes included a dollop of humor, such as Lali Miles’ “Thanksgiving in July” ice cream with cranberries and walnuts and “I Want Mor-e-o” made with Oreo mint cookies.

“I gear up in January and think of a bunch of flavors,” says Miles, 47, of McKinney, a two-time contest winner. “I shop them to my friends and see what they like.”

Sharing ice-cream making and tasting with friends and family is exactly what Clyde Geer, 65, had in mind when he started the contest in 1996 at his downtown antique store at the suggestion of his father-in-law, the late Killis Melton.

“The events coordinator for the city (Jim Runge) and I were talking about having a chili cookoff,” Geer recalls, “and Killis said, ‘I like chili as much as anybody, but when it’s 100 degrees out we ought to be making ice cream.’”

A scoopful of memories
Whether churned by hand, foot or electric motor, a dish of thick and creamy homemade ice cream hits the spot on a summer day and churns up happy memories, too.

“People remember sitting on the freezer while somebody else turned the crank,” Geer says. “And the unwritten rule was ‘if you helped, you got to taste first.’

“Making ice cream reminds people of a slower time,” he adds.

With a manual ice cream freezer, at least 30 minutes of cranking is required to make a batch of ice cream. The crank turns a paddle to keep the ice cream mixture light and fluffy as it freezes in its canister. Ice and rock salt, which makes the ice melt faster, are packed around the canister to lower the temperature of the swirling ice cream.

“Everybody’s ice cream is the best because they formulate the recipe until they get it right,” says Geer, who can’t get his fill of his family’s homemade Dublin Dr Pepper-and-peanut ice cream. “Dublin” refers to the Texas town where the original Dr Pepper recipe with cane sugar is bottled.

Flavoring a plain vanilla recipe with a variety of ingredients—from cantaloupe to sweet corn—provides creative fun for ice cream makers, whether the cool treat is churned at home or during the contest. Tasting is the highlight of the crank-off for attendees, who pay $5 each to sample the assorted flavors.

“This is very good,” says Pam Dimoulakis, 55, of nearby Allen, as she savors a mouthful of “I Want Mor-e-o.” “It’s a nice refreshing mint without being overbearing.”

Adanna Escoto Sherley, 2, is too young to vote for her favorite flavor, but is clearly enamored with “Aztec chocolate.” She licks each drip from her fingers, then spoons a bit more from her sample cup.

“Can you give Mommy a bite?” prompts mother Tasha Sherley, 33, of McKinney.

For many children, the crank-off is their first taste of homemade ice cream, says Cindy Johnson, 52, executive director of Chestnut Square Historic Village, which hosts the event. The nonprofit pioneer village and McKinney Main Street sponsor the contest, and their members make an additional 150 gallons to guarantee a plentiful supply for the ice cream-loving crowd.

Cranking collection
While judging and sampling is under way, festival-goers peruse the world’s largest collection of antique ice cream freezers inside the visitor center at the historic village.

More than 300 models crowd the shelves of Doc ’N’ Clyde’s Ice Cream Freezer Museum, including an 1865 glass freezer that resembles a butter churn, a miniature steam-powered freezer and a nifty 1920s metal Casco brand.

The late Steven “Doc” Wilson, of Fayetteville, Ark., collected more than 200 of the antique ice cream freezers and in 1993 was certified by Guinness World Records as having the world’s largest collection. Geer also had a large collection, and when the men met in 1998 over homemade ice cream at the crank-off, they became fast friends. When his health deteriorated, Wilson gave his collection to his friend.

“Doc believed that sharing a bowl of homemade ice cream with friends and family is as good as it gets,” Geer says.

That sentiment is echoed at Killis Melton’s Ice Cream Crank-Off as people sit under shade trees, laughing and visiting between “mmmms” while sampling strawberry-marshmallow, blackberry cobbler and watermelon-flavored ice creams—and remembering the man, Kellis Melton, who had the idea that started it all.

“Fifty years ago, you didn’t have air conditioning,” says G.G. Cain, whose mango and habanero pepper ice cream won in the “gourmet” category. “Summers were hot, and making ice cream was a wonderful thing to do.”

It’s still a wonderful thing to do each summer in McKinney, Texas.