Blue moon ice cream, identifiable by its tongue-staining, Smurf-blue hue, is nothing if not a mystery.
“It seemed so strange,” Nara Schoenberg, the journalist who wrote the first investigative article on blue moon ice cream in 2007, said. “Most ice creams fit a pattern — chocolate, vanilla, even sorbets or cotton candy, you can see where it came from.”
But blue moon is another story.
Its flavor is familiar yet unplaceable — some claim that it tastes like Froot Loops, marshmallow or cotton candy. Others swear the treat has more of a raspberry, almond extract or citrus overtone. (Most blue moon ice cream recipes call for raspberries, lemon extract and vanilla — could this be the answer, or are these simply the easiest ingredients home cooks can get their hands on?)
Despite all these speculations, blue moon ice cream reveals no secrets.
What makes the debate even harder to settle is that most people outside of the Midwest have never heard of the flavor before — and, on the flipside, most Midwesterners don’t realize that it isn’t a countrywide ice cream shop staple.
“It’s just one of those things that was there at most ice cream shops,” Daniel Huffman, who has always lived in the Great Lakes region, said. “There are always basic flavors like chocolate or strawberry, and blue moon was in that category in my mind. It wasn’t until my early to mid-30s that I came to understand it wasn’t ubiquitous throughout the entire United States.”
Deeming the description of blue moon ice cream as “Midwestern” as too vague, Huffman, a cartographer, embarked on a quest to map out where blue moon ice cream could be found in 2020.
While the map doesn’t capture all the nuances of the flavor’s spread — culture and food don’t stick to state lines, Huffman noted, and using Yelp as a database is bound to include some irrelevant datapoints or missing information — it seems that blue moon ice cream is most commonly found in Wisconsin and Michigan, and almost impossible to find outside of the Great Lakes region. Even within the Midwest, states like Ohio and Indiana seem to lack an availability of the ice cream.
Localized regional foods are often famed for existing in a certain area — take Chicago’s iconic deep dish pizza, for example. One article bestows that honor upon blue moon ice cream, calling it an “iconic Midwestern frozen treat.” Huffman, however, said that “for something to be iconic, the people for whom it is an icon need to know that it is an icon” — and that seems not to be the case with blue moon ice cream.
“I think a lot of people from this part of the country … would go to a shop in New Jersey and be kind of surprised they couldn’t order blue moon,” Schoenberg said.
Rebecca Stoffs, sales director of Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream based in Madison Wisconsin, agreed.
“I didn’t realize it was a regional flavor until I started selling ice cream nationally, and people didn’t really know what it was,” she said.
Despite being so regionally confined, the exact origin of blue moon ice cream is hard to trace. Through her research, Schoenberg narrowed the possible origin theories to Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but eventually knocked out the former.
According to the Milwaukee theory, Bill Sidon, the chief flavor chemist of Petran Products, created the flavor after arriving in the U.S. from Austria in the 1950s. The company was later sold to Weber Flavors in Chicago in 1982, which now owns the trademark to the flavoring in blue moon ice cream.
The theory is not without its holes. The trademark documentation dates the blue moon formula’s first use as November 30, 1938, when Sidon was still in Europe. Moreover, in the 1930s, The Charleston Gazette wrote about the arrival of Blossom Dairy’s blue moon ice cream in West Virginia: “a fruit mixture with a delightful flavor and color.” The Marion Star in Ohio also ran an ad for Isaly ice cream, with “Blue Moon” listed as a flavor. In the next decade, The Berkshire Evening Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, printed an ad for “Blue Moon Ice Cream, something new in blue ice cream. A flavor of its own.”
Now, having found evidence sowing doubt in the Milwaukee theory, as well, Schoenberg finds the Charleston Gazette as the most compelling documentation of blue moon’s origin.
“They’re not just calling it blue moon — they’re saying it has a fruit mixture, or I would say a fruit flavor,” she said. “And this sounds like an enterprising group of ice cream stores. They also had pumpkin and plum pudding ice cream.”
So, for Blossom Dairy to have concocted blue moon isn’t too far-fetched — but does that mean that this “Midwestern” flavor originated outside of the Midwest?
While the answers to the ice cream’s origin may be ambiguous still, another million-dollar question — what exactly is the flavor of blue moon? — may continue to divide ice cream connoisseurs for years to come.
Regardless, it doesn’t seem like its popularity will die down any time soon. At Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, based in Madison, Wisconsin, blue moon ice cream is one of their top 10 best-selling flavors.
“Ten or 15 years ago, [blue moon] was our fifth best-selling flavor, and I would bet that it only dropped because we sell to a wider range of areas now,” Stoffs said. “If we were to narrow it back down to sales in the Wisconsin area, I think that it would be a higher ranking than it is right now. Locally, it still is in the very top.”
And locals, whether they recognize the flavor as regional or not, have a deep appreciation for blue moon.
“People take pride in blue moon as a regional flavor, and people — especially kids — just love it,” Schoenberg said. “It’s great ice cream.”