Story by Sue Burns | Photos by Jonna Dodge

C

an something cool you off and warm you up at the same time? Let’s look for the answer to Mark Merritt’s hand-cranked ice cream, sold only at the Wild Oak Coffee House in Springville. Locals and visitors flock to the cafe year-round for a caffeine fix, food, fellowship and, most of all, the ice cream.

Merritt has been making ice cream for as long as he can remember, learning the craft by doing it with his grandfather. His mom would mix the ingredients and then he and grandpa would turn the crank in the churn. Remembering burly hands going down into the salty ice water, “grandpa always won the contests for who could hold their hands in the water the longest,” he said. “When you think of ice cream, it’s fun, happy times.…” Now, at 65 years old with grandchildren of his own, Merritt has upped the ice cream ante.

Churning ice cream is just one of the family traditions Merritt is building upon. His family has been farming and ranching for more than 70 years. Their farm, between Porterville and Pixley, started with honeydew melons, row crops (cotton, wheat, corn, alfalfa) and some olives. Over time, the family transitioned to permanent crops, including almonds, pistachios and walnuts. They also have a cattle ranch in Springville. Both of Merritt’s grandfathers knew each other and started farming in the Imperial Valley before eventually moving to Arvin and finally Springville.

Merritt grew up farming and continues to run things as his “day job”; he also cares for his aging but active mother during the day. She accompanies him on his duties around the farm, still climbing into his pickup truck at age 89. Although his responsibilities are now more supervisory in nature, he is as busy as ever — perhaps more so, with the added “job” of making sure that there is ice cream aplenty for the family and the coffee shop.

Merritt’s passion for his craft is evident as he shares details about his recipes and methods. When he began making ice cream on his own — always vanilla — it was a hobby, supplying the favorite dessert for family birthdays, events and holidays. That turned into making ice cream for bigger events, such as weddings, memorials and Fourth of July celebrations on the family farm. Still, it was always only vanilla that was served.

Merritt’s daughter, Elizabeth Bowser, owns the Wild Oak Coffee House on Highway 190 in Springville. She said that in their conversations about opening a coffee shop, he would always suggest selling the ice cream. She was hesitant about making such a big request. “It’s one thing to make ice cream for family events, but quite another to make it on an ongoing basis for the coffee shop,” she said. But he kept reassuring her that it was something he really wanted to do. He put himself out there and kept asking, and in the end she couldn’t resist, she said.

Like Merritt, Elizabeth’s ice cream memories go back as far as she can remember, and his grandchildren are now making memories of their own. His ice cream is the best, in her opinion, and amplifies the homey atmosphere that draws people to the shop. This has been especially true during the pandemic, when the demand for comfort foods like coffee and ice cream — along with the typical camaraderie one finds in a local coffee shop — actually rose as people looked for a sense of normalcy in uncharted waters. She believes that his creativity is a blessing and loves to hear that customers come just for the ice cream, often bringing family and friends from out of town.

The shop’s first flavor offerings were vanilla and honey vanilla. Gradually, requests and even recipes for other flavors started coming in. Merritt sampled ice cream shop flavors and realized that he liked the variety — then set out to make them better. And indeed he does, roasting nuts and fruits, baking brownies and going every extra mile that he can to ensure the best quality, freshness and crunch.

He has a story for every flavor he’s made. Vanilla contains blends of different extracts, and Honey Vanilla uses clover, orange blossom and other varieties from his niece’s business (John Davis Apiaries). He uses locally sourced ingredients as much as possible, which vary with the seasons; consequently, no two batches are the same as he strives for new combinations and better flavors.

Rocky Road and Coffee Almond Toffee Crunch are two of the biggest sellers. Fried Peach is reminiscent of his mom’s recipe, when she would cook the peaches on the stovetop with butter, brown sugar and a splash of brandy before serving with ice cream. Merritt prepares the peaches in the oven, using the same ingredients, then folds them into the churned ice cream. Roasted Banana and Apple Pie are made in similar fashion with either spiced rum or Irish whiskey at the end of the cooking for added panache. There are even dairy-free options available. Although he loves experimenting and creating new flavors, his personal favorite is still vanilla. Simply put, ”everything else is just flavors.”

Typically, Merritt makes a flavor or two each day, based on what’s selling and how fast. Every batch is hand-cranked in his trusty 2-gallon Immergood freezer with triple action and no motor. It takes about an hour, all told — he will crank for awhile, then go to quickly prep other ingredients or another batch, then return to cranking; he considers this his aerobic workout.

Merritt and Bowser share a new favorite memory from just a few weeks ago when things began to open up and Merritt’s granddaughter Paisley’s Springville Elementary first-grade class walked to the coffee shop. In class, the students had studied the history and science of making ice cream and how salt and ice combine to freeze ingredients, along with an introduction to business. As the culmination of the lessons, the students got a hands-on experience creating their own batch of ice cream as they had a chance to crank the ice cream churn, which was a new and very special opportunity.

Since Wild Oak opened when Paisley was just a year old, the coffee shop is like her second home. Having her class at the shop for this field trip was an especially treasured moment for the dad-daughter duo. And it’s just such moments that keep Merritt churning his delicious ice creams. Through COVID and through life, “exercise and ministry (by way of sharing his faith and his talent) have kept me sane.”

Safe to say the mystery is solved. Merritt’s ice cream cools the palate while it warms the heart, and that’s because of the love and the tradition infused into every hand-cranked batch. Through Merritt, who lives and breathes ice cream, family and friends old and new are treated to sweet flavors that reinforce the power of food in life: “It’s been there from childhood to weddings to memorials. Through the good, the bad and the ugly, ice cream was — and still is — always there.”

Honey Vanilla Ice Cream

For a 6-quart hand-cranked (or motorized) churn.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 gallon half and half, divided — plus additional, if necessary
  • 1 quart heavy cream
  • 4 large or 5 medium eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1-2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups honey (whatever variety you prefer — milder flavors such as clover or wildflower, or stronger flavors, such as orange blossom, buckwheat, etc.)
  • 1 cup sugar

DIRECTIONS
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm 1 quart half and half.
Add the honey, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring each addition until smooth.
Temper the eggs by adding a small amount of the warm mixture to the eggs while whisking briskly. Then slowly add the egg mixture back to the milk and honey, whisking constantly.
Continue whisking until the mixture reaches 165-170F, then remove the pan from the heat.
Pour a small amount of the cold cream into the half-honey and half-egg mixture, whisking, then allow the mixture to cool for 20-30 minutes.
Pour the mixture into the ice cream churn canister through a fine mesh strainer.
Add the salt, the rest of the cream, vanilla, 1 cup of the sugar and enough half and half to fill the canister to within 2 inches of the top.
Freeze according to manufacturer’s directions.

VARIATIONS
To sweeten with only honey, omit the sugar and use 2 cups honey.
For Honey Almond, fold 3 cups chopped roasted almonds into the churned ice cream.
For Honey Lavender, omit the vanilla extract and stir 8 tablespoons food-grade dried lavender flowers into the cooked egg mixture. Allow to steep as the mixture cools. Strain the mixture before adding to the ice cream mixer.