For the first time in its 108-year history, Blue Bell Creameries of Brenham, Texas, has stopped making ice cream. It is voluntarily recalling all of its products in all of its facilities because of potential contamination with Listeria.
That might not seem like a big deal if you’re not from Texas. But many Texans eat no other ice cream. It’s not so much food snobbery as it is habit–and perhaps a dash of Texas pride. It’s the only ice cream many have ever eaten. So it’s not like Texans are down one brand of ice cream in the supermarket freezer case. It’s like they’re plumb out of ice cream.
The family-run business has achieved cult-like status outside of Texas, too, mostly from homesick Texans and refugees from nearby southern states where it is sold who moved north, and now take pilgrimages to find it. Company reps say the reason it’s so good is the fresh milk. And they’re not sharing the recipe.
But now, no one can get it. Many of the Blue Bell bereft have taken to the Internet. Gretchen Opersteny, a nurse who lives in Bryan (favorite flavor: Caramel Turtle Fudge), started a Facebook page called We Stand with Blue Bell Creameries. She intended to show support and commiserate with friends, but the project took off in a big way. “Within three days there were 23,000 likes on the page,” she says. Now she’s using it to raise money to help Blue Bell workers who have lost their jobs.
Freezer cases around the state are empty. The one at the The Capitol Grill, the open-to-the-public cafeteria in the Capitol in Austin, reportedly was unplugged and rolled off into storage.
Facebook walls bear photos of “God Bless Blue Bell.” There are yard signs and T-shirts that say “I survived the Blue Bell famine of 2015.” It has even been suggested that the recent floods in Texas were, in fact, the result of God’s tears, shed for the Blue Bell crisis.
Drama aside, there is a significant history here. Farmers in Brenham founded Blue Bell in 1907 as a way to use their excess cream. The company made butter to start, but within a few years, it had begun delivering ice cream by horse and wagon. Brenham, today a town of 16,000 situated between Austin and Houston, became known for bluebonnets during the spring wildflower season and Blue Bell ice cream year-round. By the start of 2015, Blue Bell was produced in three production facilities and sold in grocery stores in 23 states.
Then, in March, Blue Bell issued its first-ever recall for Listeria contamination. In April, it expanded the recall to include all of its products and shut down its production lines for a thorough cleaning. All told, 10 people were sickened and three of them died. In May, in a move the company called “agonizing,” some 1,450 employees were laid off and 1,400 more furloughed from Blue Bell production and distribution facilities nationwide.
For a food processor, acquiring Listeria is easy, but getting rid of it is not. It’s found in soil and water, and it’s easily transmitted via animal products like milk. Pasteurization kills it, but if it sneaks by that process, it can thrive and multiply even in refrigerators. Listeria doesn’t always make people sick when they eat it, but when it does, its symptoms can be severe.
“We are heatbroken over this situation, and apologize to all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers,” says Blue Bell CEO Paul Kruse in a video press release April 20. “We’re committed to fixing the problem.”
But until Blue Bell can clean up and get production underway again, Texans are making do without their Homemade Vanilla and Cookies ‘n Cream. People are saying things like, “I had to buy some of that Dreyer’s stuff,” skepticism and disappointment in their voices. Some have turned to Creamy Creations, a brand proprietary to Texas grocery chain HEB. At least it’s local, they say, but it’s not the same.
Dell Billings, a communications specialist at Texas A & M University (favorite flavor: Homemade Vanilla), created an internet meme that substitutes the Blue Bell logo of a cow and a dairy maid for the cannon in the infamous “come and take it” banner from the Texas Revolution.
(If you’re not familiar with the Texas Revolution, you’re obviously not from around here. Texans reigned victorious, achieving independence from Mexico in 1836. Texas would become a U.S. state in 1845.)
But you’ve probably heard someone, somewhere yell, “Remember the Alamo!”–a battle cry exhorting bravery in the tradition of that infamous siege.
To be sure, Texans will show that same courage in enduring a 100-degree summer without their beloved Blue Bell.
Beth Goulart Monson is a freelance food writer based in Austin, TX. Follow her on Twitter.