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You know how some people are obsessed with stamp collections or fantasy football teams? Well, we're obsessed with cookbooks. (Surprise!) Here, we'll talk them.
Today: Bryan Petroff and Douglas Quint of Big Gay Ice Cream wrote a cookbook about ice cream, in yearbook form. Wonder how that happened? Here, they give us the scoop on the items that inspired the book—from comics to a Pop Tart-cat hybrid. And, check back this Thursday for an ice cream-themed Burnt Toast podcast episode featuring none other than the Big Gay guys.
Laying out our cookbook in a yearbook style was really form following function. We spent a long time working through the theme and flow of the book, but one thing was for certain: We didn’t want our book to be like every other ice cream book. We didn’t want the reader to start off making a custard base on page two, freaking out, and putting the book away forever. That’s when we decided to start off simply—with ideas and combinations for commercially bought ice cream and toppings—just like we did in the early days of the truck. That’s when one of us said, “We’re basically starting with Ice Cream 101.” And that’s when it hit us: 101, freshman, high school, yearbook. The recipes in our book get progressively harder until Senior year, when you’re finally making actual ice cream.
Once we had the framework of a yearbook, everything else fell into place: the style, the layouts, the high school superlatives, the font choices, the signatures from friends, the fake ads in the back, the cover. Everything was thrown into the book. We realized it would only work as a yearbook theme if we went overboard with the theme, which we did. Clarkson Potter was really open to most everything. We are really grateful that what you see is our vision through and through. They really only gave us two parameters: It had to have at least a certain number of recipes and it had to be a specific number of pages. Everything else they let us control from start to finish.
There isn’t a single thing in the book that wasn’t our decision, and I can’t say that’s the case for most cookbooks. So, after deciding to do a yearbook, the fun began. Our book designer, Jason O’Malley, started by looking at yearbook covers from the 1980s. These are some of his finds. My favorite is the lower middle one. Whoever designed that yearbook is a GENIUS. Also below you’ll see an early version of our cover, which used a photo of embossed leather as the background to add to the yearbook feel.
2. Laser Cat High School Guy
You can’t have a yearbook without yearbook photos, and thanks to the interwebs, this may very well be the most famous yearbook photo of all time. What amazes me is how much the cat is “working it.” We asked our friend, Mary Smith, to make our backdrop for us, and it’s apparent where she drew her inspiration. Mary is a cake designer and decorator that people may remember as one of the decorators on TV’s “Ace of Cakes.” After we got the backdrop, we set it up on a wall in one of our shops and did an open casting for yearbook photos. For three days our photographer, Donny Tsang, took photos. We only required two things: You pose with ice cream (and get to eat it) and we get to use the photos in our book. We ended up with hundreds of photos, so it was hard to narrow those down to the ones in the book. Part of the fun in those photos is seeing how whacky some of them really are (is that guy wearing a sequined unitard and applying lipstick?!), as well as seeing who people recognize. There are a number of famous people in the photos, as well as friends, family, employees, and regular customers. There are two porn stars photographed as well. But a lot of the people we don’t know. They’re just people that wanted to be part of the project and had a lot of fun doing it. Oh, and there is one topless person, but we’re not going to say who.
Our friend and BGIC trucker, Genevieve Belleveau, styled all sorts of high school inspired looks, but a lot of people came prepared with their own. People really took it seriously. Amanda Freitag showed up exactly as you see her in the book: Aquanet hair, pink blush, blue eyeshadow, and acid wash denim jacket. She said was so freaked out at being caught looking like that in public, but was too dedicated to the cause to not do it. We loved it. She was hilarious.
Even though we were deliberately shying away from conventional cookbooks and ideas, that doesn’t mean we weren’t aware of what was being published at the time or what great books were out there. Each of these books played a part, big or small, in the shape of our book:
The Perfect Scoop doesn’t so much play into our book as much as it did our confidence in our own abilities to write recipes. We decided to become “ice cream men” during the summer of 2011 (our third season with the truck). That’s when we started construction on our first shop. Bryan quit his job and Doug dropped out of his doctoral program and stopped performing. It was without a doubt one of the hardest decisions we both had to do. Making and mastering the recipes from this book gave us the confidence that we made the right decision, that this was what we were meant to do.
The Art of Living According to Joe Beef showed us that you can tell a story through a recipes—that they can teach you about food as much as they are a series of steps on how to make something. More than a cookbook, it’s a documentary on the art of food as a metaphor for life. Knowing Fred and Dave as well as we do, we can honestly say it is exactly what the title says it is: It’s a gospel.
To us, Great British Food proves that the most beautiful cookbooks these days are published in the UK. Not only that, but many of them hide in plain sight. Behind a deceptively simple, maybe even boring, cover and title, is one of the most imaginative and remarkably photographed books around. To call it a cookbook would be to call Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a children’s book. Nothing about it prepares you for the giddiness, humor, and creativity you’ll find inside.
The Vintage Tea Party Book stretches the definition of a cookbook almost as far as it can go. It successfully mixes arts and crafts with food and drink. It’s more a lifestyle book, perhaps the kind of book Alice would have written after coming back from her Wonderland adventures. In a way, it’s the opposite of Joe Beef, where history and reality are romanticized. In this book, romanticism is played up as reality.
4. Our Big Gay Ice Cream Truck summers
We started work on our book during our fourth year of the business, so it was fitting to look back on those four years in the context of a yearbook. They were our own education, so how we learned and grew as business owners reflected the reader's growth and journey. Around year two of our business, we began working on recipes for a book at a different publisher. Eventually we walked from that book deal. It was one of the best decisions we ever made and testament to the importance of saying “no.” However, soon afterwards, we signed a lease on our first shop and parlayed a number of those sauces and toppings recipes into ones we ended up using ourselves. By the time we opened our second shop a year later, we were making our own ice cream. Every year we strive to be better at something we do. Additionally, we have made the effort to move away from commercial products as much as possible and make everything we can homemade—probably the antithesis of most companies as they grow. Those four years from weird idea to multi-store brand, from shopping the supermarket to proprietary ice cream production, isn’t that far removed from the reader’s journey through the cookbook.
5. Nyan Cat
Nyan Cat is an animated video on YouTube. It involves a pixelated Pop Tart cat flying through the universe leaving a rainbow trail. That’s it. But it goes on for hours. Literally, for countless hours. Watching it is like getting sucked into a wormhole. It’s hard to look away. This led to the pixelated version of our cone that you see in the book as the page number icon as well as the ice cream cone atom in the Science Sidebar sections.
6. Our high school photos
If we were going to publish other people’s yearbook photos, we had to be willing to “go there” ourselves. There’s something about looking back at those photos that make us all cringe, yet back then I don’t think we had a care in the world. Ultimately these just added to the overall look and feel of what we wanted the book to be, but they never actually made it into the book. What you see above is the Bio page from the book proposal we created for Clarkson Potter. We had no idea what a book proposal looked like, which in retrospect was a good thing. Most of the time they’re just typed up outlines a few paragraphs long. We submitted a full-color, 20-page mini version of the book. And Rebecca told us she was completely stoned when that photo was taken. We were shocked! Not.
7. Adventure Time
If we had a TV show, it would be “Adventure Time” with food. That’s why we will never have a TV show. No studio would ever produce it. Until then, there’s the real thing. “Adventure Time” is that rare jewel that transcends its studio’s target market. To call it a kid’s cartoon is to dismiss how close it is to actual art. It’s imagination incarnate. It’s the perfect example that, in the right hands, throwing everything AND the kitchen sink into something can actually work. This gave us the inspiration and confidence to take a similar approach with our book. We don’t watch much TV actually. Bryan doesn’t even own one. We have the Bourdains to thank for introducing us to this phantasmagoria. Too much is never enough.
8. New York City
We believe Big Gay Ice Cream can exist most anywhere now. We learned this during our road trip in the fall of 2014 through the Bible Belt, when we had upwards of three-hour waits at our truck. But it couldn’t have STARTED anywhere but New York City. People often ask us who our customer is, and our answer is always New York City. We are lucky to have been immersed in a truly diverse melting pot of cultures and beliefs, all of whom just cared about one thing: great ice cream. New York City is the mother that allowed us to fly our freak flag high. She had our back. Part of our mission with the book was to give thanks to the city. We specifically wanted our ice cream photos taken outside to make the reader feel like they were out and about on a summer day in the city eating a cone—a sweet, tasty, drippy cone.
You can’t have a yearbook and not have a prom. Visions and interpretations of high school proms are countless, and while we are both more closely tied to the John Hughes variety (if nothing, but for the soundtracks), artistically it’s hard to beat Brian De Palma’s vision. "Grease” may be a close second, but pig’s blood will always put you on top.
10. Archie Comics
Early on we knew we wanted to have a comic book in our cookbook. To our surprise, Clarkson Potter said, “Sure!” They even went so far as it have it printed and inserted on different sized paper, so it really feels like someone just stuck a comic book inside their yearbook. Naturally, we drew our inspiration from the most high school of comics, “Archie,” but we wanted a slightly subversive version.
With a story in mind, we took it to our friend, the comedian and writer, Sarah Thyre. The first thing she said was, “the bad guy has to be a white guy with dreads.” We knew immediately she was the right choice. It’s essentially an alternate reality version of the start of Big Gay Ice Cream that ties back to Anthony Bourdain’s foreword. That may or may not be Bea Arthur running the ice cream parlor. The character, Jojo, is Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s by way of Vasquez from “Aliens.” The character, Rick, shows up again in the book during the epilogue at Ronnybrook Farm Dairy. We liked the idea that once packaged all together, the book, the comic book, and everything else, created a historic—albeit fake—continuity. The comic book is the one place that we lost out to the lawyers. There were two words inside the comic we had to change. We didn’t have to change any foul language throughout the rest of the book, but the argument was that while the book would be very attractive to children because of the bright colors, illustrations, unicorns, and whatnot, the comic book would be especially attractive for kids. Therefore we had to downplay some things. We were surprised by the changes because they allowed us to keep the name of the ice cream parlor, Fudgepackers. Here the lawyers thought the joke would go over most peoples’ heads. Dear reader, please tell us the fudgepackers joke didn’t go over your head!
11. Baby Jessica
Our book is chock full of easter eggs, hidden surprises, and double entendres. We wanted it to be a book you would keep going back to again and again and finding something new in it each time. Baby Jessica has a special place in our book, but we’re not going to tell you where to find it. You’ll have to discover it for yourself.
12. Ronnybrook Dairy Farm
Once through your “education” on ice cream in the book, we thought the next logical step was one that helped educate the reader, even a little bit, into the world of the dairy farm. At the time, we had just secured our partnership with Ronnybrook Dairy Farm. Additionally, we were serving our own ice cream in our shops that we had personally developed. We were very happy with everything that we had accomplished. We also wanted to tell a happy story about farm life, for a change. There are always so many (justifiably) depressing stories about the treatment of animals, we thought that the farms where they get it right weren’t being respected enough, so we decided to turn the spotlight on the dairy we are closest to and give them a nice shout out. (Granted it’s a shout out that’s been morphed into our kooky fantasy version of Big Gay Ice Cream we portray in the book.) It also works as a set up for any book we do that comes next. Now that we’ve given you the “origin story” (the fundamentals), we can go in any direction we want. While we have no plans yet for a second book, our one goal for it thus far is that it be even weirder than the first.
Photos courtesy of the author. Spreads reprinted from Big Gay Ice Cream. Copyright © 2015 by Bryan Petroff and Douglas Quint. Photographs copyright © 2015 by Donny Tsang. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.