Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

August 10–17, 1995

20 questions

An Interview with John Harrison


By Deni Kasrel

Background: John Harrison has one sweet job. He takes little bites from ice cream production runs and, using what's called the 3-S method (swirl, smack, and spit), judges each sample to determine if it meets certain high standards. John's tasting acumen is so exceptional that his employer, Edy's Grand Ice Cream, insures his tastebuds for a cool $1 million.

He says ice cream runs through his veins — it's an inherited trait. John's great-grandfather operated two ice cream parlor/candy stores, a grandfather ran a dairy co-op and his dad and an uncle owned a dairy ingredients company. He began working for Edy's in 1980. Besides tasting their goods, he helps develop new flavors. Among his prized picks are Cookies N' Cream ("mine was the first") and New York Blueberry Cheesecake. Aside from those delectable doings, John trains others on the fine points of ice cream, though at present much of his time is spent criss-crossing the country giving talks, free samples and just generally dishing out the virtues of ice cream.

Why do you suppose your family tree is so rooted in the ice cream business?

It was just one of those generational things. You know, whatever your father did you did. And hey — ice cream is not a bad thing to pass down. Our family discussions were often about ice cream. I've got five kids and I believe one will follow in dad's footsteps.

Do all your kids like ice cream?

Of course. They've all overdosed on it and done reports on cocoa beans, vanilla beans, dad's job. I've gotten them many good grades over the years.

Did you ever consider a career in a different industry?

[This job] wasn't a given, but it wasn't a surprise. In the beginning I went on my own with Borden's company, working in sales. My dad and uncle saw I had prowess and they invited me to join their company Dairy-Tech. I trained in North and South America as a formulator of dairy products — yogurts, cottage cheese, ice cream, sherbets. If you owned a dairy company and wanted to start a new line then I would come work with you. Or if you had a technical problem in formulation and manufacturing, that was my background — I knew it backwards and forwards.

How did you wind up at Edy's.

They had a technical problem in 1978 that I came in to work on. We solved it and several years later they called and said we designed a position around your abilities to be our taster and flavor developer.

How many flavors does a tester taste each day?

About 20 flavors and 60 packages. The ice cream makers set aside samples from every production run. They take from the beginning, middle and end to get a whole picture of the run.

You use a gold-plated spoon. What's wrong with stainless steel?

With it — or wood or plastic — you get an aftertaste. So you eliminate anything that will interfere — even to the point that I don't allow anyone in the lab with perfume. It messes up the nose. The olfactory sense is critical. It's not just the sweet, sour, bitter and salt. Just as important is the balance between the dairy, sugar and flavoring materials — the bouquet. I have to watch what I eat, too. When I'm testing I don't eat spicy or lingering foods — like garlic, onions, or cayenne pepper.

You're tasting so many flavors a day. Don't you get tired of it after a while?

I would if I swallowed all the samples. But I spit them out. Much like a wine taster. I start with the lights, like vanilla and toasted almond, and work my way up to the heavy Bordeaux, like mint chocolate chip.

Your taste buds are insured for a million dollars. Who writes that policy?

A company similar to Lloyd's of London that insures body parts. It's like key man insurance. In some companies they'll insure the chairman of the board because they consider him irreplaceable. To fill his spot they'd have to do a big search and incur heavy financial involvement. Edy's sees that same asset in my abilities.

How does it feel to know you're a one million dollar man?

My wife keeps me in check.

How many flavors have you helped create?

About a hundred.

What are some you're most proud of?

Well, I'm a chocoholic; there's chocolate mousse, double fudge brownie and French silk — a light milk chocolate with vanilla mousse ribbon through it, with a hint of malt and coffee in the chocolate and chocolate chip. It's an excellent flavor. Pear sherbet is one I liked but the public didn't... And there's been a few fruit flavors. It's been a colorful career for me.

Have any flavors made you think "what the heck is this?"

About five years ago, because of the growth in Hispanic and Mexican restaurants, the fast food services were wanting specialty flavors. We developed several... but jalapeno pepper was one we decided to keep in the cellar. Because it gave two messages, one hot one cold. The brain literally twitched, thinking what is it, hot or cold? It was a strange reaction.

How many batches do you reject?

Last year about a half-million gallons. But total production was about 75 million gallons. So what's that, six-tenths of one percent? It's not so bad.

What's the most unusual aspect of your job?

Most people think it's that I don't swallow the ice cream. I have a big 55-gallon plastic receptacle on wheels that follows me down. And I cut the ice cream in half and put it in a cabinet for the makers to see what they did the previous day. To tell if they need to tweak it or something. Other than that it's probably the Willy Wonka job in America. And it's very creative.

You travel a lot as a company product spokesperson. Have you met famous people doing this?

Sure. I've been on a lot of TV shows —Mike and Matty, the Today Show, Robin Leach's cable food show.

Have you met President Clinton?

No. But I think if a candidate were to run they could do so on a good ice cream ticket. Instead of a chicken in every pot, maybe a scoop in every bowl.

That would be a sweet platform.

Absolutely. In place of bullets you could offer bubble gum ice cream. They'd get the full scoop that way.

Do you eat ice cream off the job?

Oh my, yes, I love it.

What's your favorite flavor?

Vanilla. Just pure vanilla, sugar and cream. There's nothing better.

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