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The Oath of Ice Cream

“Cilantro-lime ice cream. People absolutely love that flavor, and it makes my heart smile because it’s my favorite.” Anthony Sobotik, cofounder of Lick Honest Ice Creams, speaks affectionately of the first flavor made specifically for the Austin, Texas-based ice cream shop that holds at its core the value of locally sourced ingredients.

Each time Anthony and his partner, Chad Palmatier, visited Austin, they would wonder aloud why there weren’t more ice cream makers taking advantage of the multiple growing seasons in Texas. Their careers in journalism and interior design, respectively, took them to New York City and then Ohio until they decided to take the huge leap, move to Austin, and open an ice cream shop. “We thought, ‘Let’s go there. Let’s do this.’ We put our house on the market, moved in September, and had a shop open by the following October,” Chad divulges.

Both Chad and Anthony were raised in small, rural, agricultural towns—Chad grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Anthony in Hallettsville, an hour and a half outside of Austin. Anthony’s grandparents had a fully operating farm, and many of his friends lived on a ranch or farm in the country as well. His German grandmother baked homemade poppy seed rolls and kolaches. “I thought everyone’s grandparents had a farm. To me, that was just normal. It formed my views on how I eat, and knowing where my food comes from, and knowing how you should treat the land and your animals.” Chad explains, “We’re all hardworking families. Nothing was ever handed to me, and everybody I knew worked.”

Though Anthony loved cooking and baking from a young age, going to culinary school was not something his guidance counselor really recommended, so he focused on another passion—journalism—figuring he could write about food. And, in his spare time, he experimented with ice cream flavors in the ice cream maker his mom gifted him. After college, he chose to move to New York City, intent on being a food writer, but his lack of food clips led him to the catering business. While working in the industry, he realized his heart had been in the culinary field all along. He created recipes, collaborated with chefs, catered on his own, and worked for a bakery.

Meanwhile, Chad was pursuing interior design, specifically focusing on retail branding to help clients like Kenneth Cole and Victoria’s Secret build their spaces to enhance their identities. He dreamed of being a shopkeeper and of having the freedom to express his ideas. When he and Anthony decided to start their own business, they soon realized they had the perfect recipe for success.

Lick was the first name they brainstormed for the shop. It was fun and playful, but they wanted to be clear about their mission—making ice cream from local ingredients and forming relationships with those growers. Lick morphed into Lick Honest Ice Creams.

Everything is made from scratch in their kitchen, and they can vouch for every single thing that goes into the ice cream. “You really have to dig deep to find the root of an ingredient, dissect it, and find every source. A lot of companies will hide things that you don’t want in your product,” reveals Anthony of their meticulous research and production.

The milk is all sourced from one small dairy that’s eighty miles north of Austin. Explains Anthony, “It’s a family-owned business, and the dairy has been in the same family for seventy-six years now. The milk comes from 150 cows, and the family knows them all by number. They take amazing care of their cows. They have tons of open space and they’re grass-fed. They are happy cows. And I believe in that; I really do.”

The milk base they’ve created is purposely lighter than some ice creams because Texas is so hot, so people gravitate toward a less fat-dense ice cream. And they cater to vegans as well, with at least three or four dairy-free coconut ice cream flavors in the case at all times. Austin is known for being vegan-friendly, and both Anthony and Chad believe in everyone being able to enjoy ice cream. Says Anthony, “I associate ice cream with family, joy, and happiness. My favorite childhood memories were of eating ice cream with my grandparents.” Adds Chad, “Everyone should be able to eat ice cream. It’s heartbreaking to think about people, especially little kids, who are lactose intolerant, and we are happy to provide a dairy-free option so all can enjoy.”

After so many years of ice cream experiments and baking projects, Anthony amassed some interesting flavor profiles he was dying to put into production in the shop. The cilantro-lime, as previously mentioned, was the first. The most successful flavors overall are the dark chocolate, olive oil, and sea salt flavor, and the Hill Country honey vanilla bean. They have ten flavors that remain consistent all year round, an additional six to eight flavors that rotate seasonally, and another three or four dairy-free flavors. Every season there is a standout. One season it was sweet cream and strawberry. Says Anthony, “It’s based off of churning ice cream when I was a kid. My aunt made this sweet cream ice cream, and usually there were peaches in it, but we made it with strawberries.”

Of course, not all flavor experiments are so successful, which makes for good stories, even if they didn’t sell as well as they had hoped. Anthony defends one of his experiments: “Smoky melon was a flavor that didn’t work so well. It was roasted cantaloupe with a little bit of mesquite-infused olive oil. I loved it and could eat a whole pint, but it didn’t sell that well.” Another flavor started what would become affectionately known as “Trail-mix-gate.” Says Anthony: “We did a trail mix flavor that we thought would be a huge hit. We named it trail mix. Customers were so invested, they started e-mailing to let us know it should be named fruit and nut mix because it lacked chocolate.” Then there was the one time they made tomato ice cream . . . “It had tomato sauce. It was real tomatoey. People were like, ‘Uh, it’s pasta sauce,’” laughs Chad. On the flip side, some flavors that don’t initially sell well end up becoming popular due to food trends. Anthony talks about that phenomenon: ”Persimmon and sage ice cream didn’t sell well for three years, but in our fourth fall season, it sold three times as much. That year, persimmons started cropping up in food publications. The food trend thing is very real.”

The shop has been both personally rewarding and financially successful for the duo, with four shops now open in Texas—three in Austin and one in San Antonio—and other cities begging for them to open other locations. Anthony explains that, when it comes to opening new shops, “We have grown very organically. It’s an ongoing conversation and collaboration with the dairy and our other local farmers and artisans. We are all growing together and we have to consider everyone’s capabilities as we expand.” Chad revels in the variety of challenges from day to day and a lack of monotony. “Every day is different,” he shares. “There’s not a lot of routine. There’s something great about that. We’re still a small company. There are new ideas all the time and new ways of doing things.”

They’ve treated the company like a big family, with employees who are excited to be there and help grow the business and growers who want to collaborate to make a quality product. It’s clear that relationships are at the top of their hierarchy of values. “It’s collaborative growth—synergy. The fact that we’ve succeeded is very gratifying because we put all our money into this and said to each other, ‘OK, here it goes,’” says Chad.

It seems the people of Texas are in full agreement with the co-owners of Lick Honest Ice Creams—they are crazy about Lick’s delicious ice cream, locally sourced ingredients, and that cilantro-lime!

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The Art of Gingerbread

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For many the sights, smells, and tastes of the holidays instantly remind them of happy memories and make the season even grander. Gingerbread certainly falls into this category—and one place that celebrates it like no other is the National Gingerbread House Competition, which has been delighting competitors and visitors alike in Asheville, North Carolina, since 1992.

When this event started, though, it wasn’t a competition: the gingerbread houses were created for display. However, someone ended up asking who won, so a winner was declared.

Twenty-seven years later, a lot has changed—including a very specific set of rules now in place. For example, each display must be made of edible materials and constructed of at least 75 percent gingerbread. Entries sitting on their base can be no larger than twenty-four inches tall or wide. And, despite the moniker, you don’t have to create a house.

Competitors can enter their creations into one of four age-based categories: adult (18 and older), teen (13–17), youth (9–12), and child (5–8). The entries are then judged on overall appearance, originality and creativity, difficulty, precision, and consistency of theme. Thirteen prizes, worth over $25,000 in total (including over $10,000 in monetary prizes) are awarded: first, second, and third place in each category, plus one for whoever traveled the farthest. The adult category’s grand-prize package includes $5,000 and a complimentary stay at The Omni Grove Park Inn, where the competition is held.

In 2018, that was the reward for North Carolinians Julie and Michael Andreacola, who took top prize with their entry “Gearing up for Christmas”—which featured working gears made of gingerbread. Catherine Beddall of Ottawa, Ontario, earned second place with her intricate “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” clock, and third place went to Grier Rubeling, also from North Carolina, who created the whimsical “Reindeer Playing Poker.” The first-place teen winners, Courtland High School German Club from Virginia, won for the fifth time with its “Old Towne Trolley Tour.”

Beyond the Battle Overall, the twenty-sixth annual National Gingerbread House Competition was another smashing success, with 190 gingerbread creations entered and the event being covered by media outlets like NBC, Food Network, and NPR. Every year, though, the competitors and The Omni staff both put a lot of effort into it, and it shows—in many ways.

“Five thousand dollars is amazing, but you don’t give that much of your life, your holiday time, and your passion if you don’t love gingerbread—and these people love it, live it, and breathe it,” says Tracey Johnston-Crum, director of public relations and community outreach for The Omni Grove Park Inn. “Some people dedicate four hundred or five hundred working hours to them. It’s similar to dog shows or horse shows or Comic-Con, where there’s almost a subculture; in fact, they created their own private Facebook group called Gingerfriends. They have to be part of this culture, and that passion shows in the work.”

Johnston-Crum concedes that, for this reason, it’s easy to experience the highs and lows with the competitors. “The hardest part of the entire competition is getting the gingerbread creation here,” she reveals. “Unfortunately, we’ve had a few that didn’t make it through the door. It is devastating, not only to the competitor but to all of us because we know the competitors. We have a vested interest in them—we’ve watched many of them grow up.” For such emergencies, The Omni has a triage area set up with things like royal icing and candies so competitors can try to fix their displays before walking them into the ballroom.

Specific rules also apply to the staff involved with the competition. “We are not allowed to pick up the houses at any time, and we are not allowed to move them for the competitors,” says Johnston-Crum. “But I do escort the competitors in because there are certain things in the hotel they have to walk around. And I like to talk to them and learn more about them.” The folks at The Omni also help the competitors by keeping the ballroom cold (which is better for the displays) and keeping the entrants anonymous for the judges.

Credibility and Validity Judges have included renowned cake artist and chef Nicholas Lodge, who has made cakes for Britain’s royal family and is the call (or lead) judge, and Cheryl Forberg, who’s the nutritionist for The Biggest Loser and a James Beard Award winner. But others outside of the culinary field also judge. “We’ve got educators and authors. We even have Nadine Orenstein, who’s a curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and who’s one of my favorite judges. She looks for different things than the chefs may look for,” Johnston-Crum shares.

To help with the scoring, the judges carry flashlights so they don’t miss any of the intricate details the competitors painstakingly add to their creations. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Johnston-Crum reveals that “our experts know what people try to get away with, so Chef Nick always brings his tool kit so we can drill into houses that we have concerns about.” (And for good reason: one time they even discovered that a PVC pipe ran through the center of a piece.) The judges will also occasionally break things off to eat them, just to make sure they meet the edibility requirement of the competition.

But it was a new judge, celebrity chef Carla Hall, who may have made the most impact in 2018 by expressing just how impressed she was by the quality of the event. “Chef Carla told me, ‘I’ve never been to a food competition that took care of their judges, integrated them, and made them feel like they were part of the competition the way that you do.’ Our whole goal is to make this an enjoyable experience for everyone involved—that is truly what makes this competition different,” Johnston-Crum says. “So it was validating to hear her, coming in with a fresh perspective, say that we do it for everybody, not just the competitors.”

The Secret Ingredient: Joy The National Gingerbread House Competition has become a tradition for many families, who come year after year to view the winning displays during the holiday season. “Most hotels empty out during the holidays, but we’re the exact opposite,” Johnston-Crum states. “We sell out every Christmas Eve and every Christmas Day. For many, Grove Park becomes Christmas personified.” The event also helps Asheville economically by drawing business from near and far, and The Omni’s holiday parking program gives a portion of the holiday season’s parking proceeds to the community. Over the past six years, over $430,000 has been given to local not-for-profits.

Johnston-Crum was there again this year, welcoming every competitor to The Omni for the 2019 National Gingerbread House Competition, held on November 18—with the winning creations to be on display through January 4, 2020. “The inventiveness and the passion impress me every year, but it’s also a hard competition. People take it very seriously, and we take it very seriously,” she concludes. “But we also truly believe that it should be fun and that everyone involved is touched positively by it. We want you to find that little piece of nostalgia that takes you back to a simpler time and rekindles something in your childhood that made you joyful—because, when you get down to it, that’s what gingerbread houses do.”