Butter pecan and peanut butter cup ice cream at Bordentown Creamery. (Yelp photo.)

I remember being a kid at Quaker Bridge Mall in the early 80’s and tucking into an ice cream cone from Baskin-Robbins, that once ubiquitous shopping respite, rescuer of countless children who are now my age.

I got whichever of the 31 flavors I got—I have never been loyal to any flavor, odd as that makes me—and my sister got chocolate, because that is the only flavor she ever got. We took them from the counter to a bench overlooking the lower level, where she promptly spilled hers onto the floor.

This being only about the most common accident to happen at any mall ever, the merciful server refilled the empty cone for my desperate mother, and everyone’s life was basically saved.

I can’t say that I remember what the ice cream tasted like. But I remember that experience. And many others from my childhood that center on ice cream.

Some of my colleagues and I spent the past month tasting ice cream at various shops in the area. We found ourselves using words like “sweet” and “creamy” and, of course, “flavor” in our descriptions. I found myself thinking things like, “this chocolate ice cream … is very chocolatey.” (It was.) Or, “this vanilla ice cream … does not taste much like vanilla.” (It did not.)

Here’s the scoop: ice cream shops have lots of flavors. Some have more, some fewer. They have lots of toppings—some have more, some fewer. They all have sprinkles and hot fudge. They all make milkshakes. Many will fold toppings into your ice cream, if you would like. Some will not.

Chocolate soft serve at Cream King in Hopewell. (Staff photo by Joe Emanski.)

Some make their ice cream in house. Some do not. I don’t think the average person can tell the difference between the two. Most of the time if a restaurant is getting its supply from somewhere else, they are doing so after they have tried making their own ice cream and found that someone else makes it better. Me, I think they’ve made a good business decision if they serve the better tasting treat.

There was a time not that long ago when The Bent Spoon in Princeton had a leg up on the competition because of its exotic flavors like olive oil or sweet corn. But even that advantage is being lessened as more and more shops expand the range of their available tastes. There was a time when I had never seen mango ice cream anywhere except Halo Pub. Now I’m likely to see it anywhere.

So here I was having assigned myself this simple idea for a column — it’s summer, write about ice cream! — and having tried many of the best around, I found myself asking a question again and again that I could not answer: what makes the biggest difference? What is the essence of ice cream?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not the ice cream.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I do believe that some ice cream tastes better than others. Is creamier or sweeter or more flavorful, or airier (if that’s what you like), or denser (if that is). I have favorites. Pretty much everyone I know has a favorite.

I’m just not sure I know the extent to which the ice cream itself matters. I think the essence of ice cream is something else, something experiential. Ice cream after all is a treat, something we often reward ourselves with. Ice cream as a commodity is something we dig out of the freezer in a moment of weakness. But ice cream out is something we’ve sought, something nice we’ve done for ourselves.

So most of us have a lot of fond memories of being out for ice cream. And as often is the case with fond memories, we have revisited some of these memories more than their fair share. In some cases, when we’re able to, we relive them by going back to wherever we had a great experience and trying to do it all over again.

I was sitting with my family in a particularly soulless store that I won’t bother to mention—it has announced that it’s closing, anyway—and this all suddenly made a lot of sense to me. The ice cream itself was fine, maybe slightly below average but perfectly enjoyable. They had lots of flavors, lots of toppings.

The problem was the place. The lack of a crowd, of a good place to sit, of a personality. The fact that we would never tell a story about this place. The most memorable ice cream experience I ever had was at Mount Rushmore, where there was an ice cream stand right in the shadow of the presidents themselves. It was memorable because they’d pack your cone with scoops and when you remarked how big it was they’d say, “That’s because I keep adding scoops until you tell me to stop.”

Strawberry heath bar cone at Halo Pub in Hamilton. (Staff photo by Stacey Micallef.)

My wife and I sat down on a stone wall with our enormous scoops, Abe and George and Thomas and Teddy looking down at us. Across the plaza were four cowboys eating enormous ice creams of their own. Real, working cowboys. Did the ice cream taste good? Maybe! Who cares?

People like Halo Pub ice cream, but they also like the shop itself, with its cozy distressed interior and mismatched furniture. If they were little when it opened, they remember running from level to level and the ringing of bells and something as simple as pouring themselves a tiny cup of water to drink.

The graffitied wooden booths of Uncle Ed’s Creamery in Pennington say it’s OK to bend the rules. And maybe while you’re there one afternoon the server is flirting with a friend who keeps retreating to a booth when there is a customer, and goes back to flirt when she’s done. Maybe you remember doing that when you were their age.

The crowds of sports teams celebrating victories (or losses) at Cream King on Route 31 take you back to team parties you had back in time. The soft serve reminds you of every soft serve you’ve ever had—there, or maybe at Kohr’s in Seaside. Cream King’s roadside stand setting doubles up on the nostalgia. It reminds you of every good roadside stand experience you’ve ever had—most of which have come on vacations you’ve taken.

A visit to Dairy Queen on Arena Drive in Hamilton or Friendly’s in Robbinsville instantly transports you back to every DQ or Friendly’s experience you’ve ever had. You get a Blizzard or a Jim Dandy sundae. There’s a reason they still have the same menu items all these years later. It’s because of you and your memories.

Purple Cow Ice Cream in Lawrenceville is comforting with its sherbet-colored walls and charming Main Street locale. When I was there a family clearly on a trip was seated at the window table, their cups and cones in various states of demolition. Looking down at a case full of flavors like coffee mud pie, Almond Joy, Cappuccino Crunch and Purple Cow (black raspberry with chocolate chips), I asked the server what his favorite flavor was. He laughed and said, “You know, I like chocolate.”

Just like my sister. Just like millions of people. The essence of ice cream isn’t organic ingredients or inventive varieties or exotic flavors. Chocolate is all you need. Or vanilla. And a good memory or two, and if you’re lucky, someone to share it with and make new memories.