No More Mr. Ice Guy

Philip Gulley shares stories of his failed career in frozen foods.

A frozen strawberry

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March is National Frozen Foods Month, so the National Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Association is encouraging us to share our interactions with frozen foods on social media, which sounds vaguely obscene and I won’t be doing it. I love some frozen foods — ice cream, for instance — but can’t abide others, like frozen pizza, which tastes like cardboard no matter who makes it. Just because a food can be frozen doesn’t mean it should.

I never walk down a frozen foods aisle without thinking of Bill Dollens, who ran the frozen food department at Johnston’s IGA in Danville, Indiana, where I worked sacking groceries in high school. He was winding down his career just as mine was cranking up. Bill Dollens was the picture of calm, except during storms, when he lived in fear of power outages. He’d lie awake during tornado season, imagining ice melt streaming down the aisles like receding glaciers.

“What this store needs is a backup generator,” he’d say whenever a cloud crossed the sun.

When Bill went on vacation each summer, Orville and Esther Johnston, the store owners, assigned me the task of keeping the frozen foods stocked, a disagreeable job that helped me realize I had no future in the frozen food business. For two weeks, my fingers would freeze and chunk off until I was down to stumps.

My younger son lives in Alaska and in the dead of winter phones to tell me how cold it is. “You don’t know the meaning of cold,” I tell him. “Why, in the summer of ’78, I nearly froze to death.”

Bill’s wife, Louise Dollens, was the junior high girls Phys Ed teacher, and every February, a week before the Valentine’s dance, she taught us how to waltz, an exercise I liked even less than frozen pizza. She would walk among us, nudging our feet into position, straightening our backs, making sure we stayed at arm’s length. I danced with Jill Lewis, who was so scarred by the experience she didn’t speak to me again until 30 years after graduation.

“The thing about working in the freezer,” Bill Dollens warned me, “is that your hands are cold all the time, and no woman will want to hold your hand. Women hate cold hands.” In my case, it didn’t even take cold hands.

I can’t help but wonder how frozen foods got their own month. Is this something Congress has to do, or did the frozen food people just declare March their special month, willy-nilly, without asking anyone? I can’t imagine Bill Dollens had anything to do with it. He was a stickler for details, a lover of protocols. He never once, in all the years I worked alongside him, sold an item past its use-by date.

“Some people think just because something is frozen it’ll be good forever, but that isn’t so,” he told me. “You got freezer burn, not to mention flavor loss. This stuff can kill you if you’re not careful.”

A man like that isn’t about to go off half-cocked and declare March National Frozen Foods Month all by himself. No, this act reeks of a sneaky lobbyist who promised some senator a lifetime of free ice cream to slip this through when no one was paying attention.

This isn’t to say frozen foods don’t have their benefits. Once, after I’d had a vasectomy, the doctor told me to place a bag of frozen peas on my groin. It worked like a charm, though the association killed my appetite for peas, and I haven’t eaten one since.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and author of 22 books, including the Harmony and Hope series featuring Sam Gardner.

This article is featured in the March/April 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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