Old fashioned Ice cream van

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How a musical truck hijacked an elite dessert and delivered it to the people.

It’s the sound of summer: a string of jangly notes cutting through the sticky-hot air. The response is Pavlovian. Mouths water. Parents reach for their wallets. Kids lace up their shoes and hit the pavement. For Ben Van Leeuwen, it was no different. Growing up in suburban Riverside, Conn., he’d race toward the siren song. The ice cream truck was coming.

In the sea of sweaty half-pints elbowing to place orders, Van Leeuwen always took his time. He’d inspect the full menu, pondering each offering, from cartoon-colored Popsicles to animal-shaped treats with gum balls for eyes. He’d imagine the flavors—Strawberry Shortcake, Choco Taco, King Cone. Then he’d pick what he always picked: a Reckless Rainbow Pop Up. “We were poor, ” he laughs. The push pop was cheap.

Today, Van Leeuwen is an ice cream magnate. With six trucks and three storefronts in New York City, the company he runs with his brother, Pete, and business partner, Laura O’Neill, prides itself on its quality. Handcrafted recipes combine sustainably sourced ingredients from far-flung places: Michel Cluizel chocolate from France, pistachios from Sicily, Tahitian vanilla beans from Papua New Guinea. The flavors have put Van Leeuwen on the vanguard of an ice cream truck resurgence. In a single generation, the ice cream truck has moved upmarket.

The history of frozen street treats begins long before Van Leeuwen encountered his first push pop—it begins before even mechanical refrigeration. The very nature of the industry—taking something frozen and hawking it on sultry sidewalks—has always forced ice cream peddlers to innovate. That the cold treat had to come to America before it could move off kings’ tables and into the hands of common folk makes the story that much sweeter.

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