Eating Sushi with Ben and Jerry

The first time I ever ate raw fish was with Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (AKA Ben and Jerry)

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield

Here is the scoop. (Sorry Fanny, I couldn’t resist).

The year was 1980 and my wife and I were going to the New York Gourmet Specialty Food Show in Manhattan. We didn’t have a trade show booth but we thought it would be a good idea to determine if we should exhibit at this type of event so our plan was to walk the show, observe the activity and figure out if we wanted to spend the money to promote our business next year.

The prior month, which I believe was May of 1980, I did something that at the time seem perfectly natural. I was fearless out of sheer ignorance. I didn’t realize that you could pick up the phone and call someone with semi-celebrity status and actually speak to them.

Out from the cold
I had an idea that maybe we could get Ben and Jerry to use Rachel’s Brownies in one of their spectacular ice cream creations. I had frozen delusions of grandeur that maybe they would make a Rachel’s Brownies ice cream and the publicity from it would help build our brand. At age 26, I didn’t know enough about business to realize what an asset it was to be naive.

So I picked up the phone and I placed a call to Ben Cohen in Vermont. I told the person who answered the phone that my name was Jeff Slater, I was President of Rachel’s Brownies and I wanted to talk to Ben about a wild idea. The receptionist put me through and on the other end of the phone was Ben Cohen. He sounded like an ordinary Joe without any airs about him; none at all.

Add one part Rachel's Brownie and one part Ben & Jerry's 
When I introduced myself and explained about our humble little brownie business in Pennsylvania he said, you guys make Rachel’s Brownies. I love Rachel’s Brownies; I eat Rachel’s Brownies on People Express Airlines all the time. We ought to do an ice cream together! I froze in my tracks.

You know that feeling you get when you eat ice cream too quickly… a brain freeze? You can picture my amazement that he knew our humble little brownie and actually wanted to connect and he thought the idea was cool. (Fanny, I couldn’t resist).

Ben said that he and Jerry were going to be in New York for the Specialty Show and we should get lunch together and talk about this idea. He said he’d call me a day before to figure out a place to meet.

We were hanging out in Springfield, New Jersey at my folks' house the day before the show when the phone rings (pre cell phone days) and it's Ben saying that he knows a neat little restaurant near The New York Public Library. He gave me the name (which I don’t remember) and said, you guys eat sushi right?

Of course I wanted to be as hip as Ben and Jerry so I said, “of course we do”.

I'll have the raw fish
Now Ra El and I love to great food and had already eaten things like escargot in Paris so we weren’t food rookies but sushi was new to us. In 1980, I am certain we never thought about eating raw fish for lunch but we figured, why not? Worse case we would pick at the pike and taste the tuna…so I confirmed our meeting. We were to meet on the steps of the New York Public Library and the restaurant was around the corner. I remember thinking since we hadn’t met how would I know them? So, I went into my Mom’s freezer, took out a pint of coffee Ben and Jerry’s, ate the ice cream and cut out the photo on the package- just in case.

I am surprised that I can’t find any artifact to share like a menu or picture from this event. I’m not clever enough to make up a story like this so you’ll need to take my word for it that this truly happened.

I do recall that the restaurant was what could be generously referred to as a hole in the wall. It looked like one of those places that would get a D+ for sanitation and that was because the inspector got paid a little something from the owner so they wouldn’t fail the inspection.

We met on the steps of the library and the restaurant was just around the corner. I immediately recognized Ben with his trademark hat. He was very garrulous and fun to talk with while Jerry seemed zoned out and not too interested in much of anything. The legend goes that Ben and Jerry were friends from high school and had taken a correspondence school class in making ice cream and that is how their ice cream empire began.

Something Smelled Fishy
We sat down for lunch in this seedy place and something really smelled fishy. I remember a platter of strange and odd rolled up stuff coming out and this was the oddest food I think I ever saw in front of me in my life. I felt like we were going fishing and someone served us the fish bait. But Ra El and I kept our cool about us and played along as if we were aficionados. (Fanny this is the last bad pun, I promise).

Sushi in the City
We nibbled on things like California roll that at least had friendly things in it like rice and cream cheese. I remember with great clarity a powerful awareness that it was so bizarre to be sitting with ice cream icons and sucking down sushi for lunch.

The result from the arrangement was that Ben and Jerry’s sold Rachel’s Brownies Ice Cream in their scoop shops for many years. We provided them with sheets of brownies that they froze and cut into irregular chunks and mixed with one of their gourmet vanilla ice creams.  They tried to make it into pints but the brownies were too thick or irregular to ever get it in production. My guess is that this co-branded product existed for about five years but today it’s just a chocolate blur.

What’s the life lesson?
Being naive can be a blessing because you don’t over analyze all the risks and rewards. You just pick up the phone and try and connect. Ben and Jerry are a couple of buddies from high school no different than Jeff and Jamie or Fanny and John or Sarah and Ellen. Don’t be afraid to go for it and reach out to connect with someone who just happens to have some fame even if you think you are a pint sized nobody. 

I guess the cliche is really true: We all scream for sushi.

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