The world in their scoop: Artichoke and Lemon Curd was a big mistake, but Chunky Monkey is a real winner. Reggie Nadelson reports on Ben and Jerry's green dream of an ice cream, now in a freezer near you

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Chunky Monkey, Coconut Almond Fudge Chip, English Toffee Crunch, Deep Dark Chocolate, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, White Russian: I am standing in the deli in Sag Harbor, Long Island, staring deep into the freezer compartment, trying to decide which flavour of Ben & Jerry's ice cream to serve for Sunday lunch.

But wait] What about Cherry Garcia, a 'living' flavour? Named after Jerry Garcia, lead singer of the Grateful Dead. Or Rainforest Crunch, which features Brazil nuts and thus encourages the kindly capitalism that saves the rainforests. The brownies in Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream are made by a minority-owned bakery. The blueberries in the Blueberry Cheesecake are purchased from Maine's Passamaquoddy Indians. From homelessness to Aids, from solar energy to family dairy farmers who just say no to synthetic growth hormones, we are talking Politically Correct with a gigantic PC. And don't forget the Peace Pops, Ben & Jerry's yummy ice-cream bars covered with chocolate. Give peace a chance. Mmmm Hmmm.

With 17 per cent butterfat, this is ice cream to die for; chunky, nutty, with not just swirls but veritable grand canyons of caramel and fudge. With it, Ben and Jerry have convinced a hefty portion of the premium ice-cream market that they are the world. And not just in America. In Israel. Canada. In Russia, where the scoop shop opening was blessed by priests (white Russians, presumably). In Harlem, where a shop is staffed by the homeless (blessed by Governor Mario Cuomo). And now, folks: Britain (the Bishop of Durham, maybe?). London got its first taste in March - at Selfridge's it's running neck and neck with Hagen Dazs - and bigger branches of Sainsbury's and specialist food shops around the country are stocking it from this week.

'Why England?' says Ben Cohen down the phone from verdant Vermont. 'If you cross the water it's the first place you hit. And they speak English.'

'We're starting off with only a few flavours,' he adds. 'Chunky Monkey (basically banana) is most popular in England.' There follows a fluent, charming, faintly evasive rap. He notes that Ben & Jerry's is preparing for export with 'packaging to conform to EC labelling regulations', retaining, of course, the famous cartons with Ben and Jerry's faces on the lid and much use of the word 'natural'. He admits the worst flavour ever was Lemon Peppermint Carob Chip. 'It had a very small fanatical following,' says Ben. 'Very small.' Other duds have included Artichoke and Lemon Curd and Cherrycoated Popcorn.

It all began when Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, now in their early forties, met, aged 12, in gym class on Long Island. In the folkloric version they were the chubbiest, slowest boys in class, sensibly preferring food to exercise. Eventually, flashing forward into history, having variously tuned in, dropped out and finished college, they met up again, moved to Vermont, and took a dollars 5 correspondence course in ice-cream making. It was 1978. They set up shop in a renovated gas station. Made ice cream. Made some money. By 1981, Time magazine called Ben & Jerry's the best ice cream in the world. By 1984, they went public.

After this come the mythic years: how Ben and Jerry built their empire of ice cream. The franchises. The Cowmobiles. The Pivotal Moment when these two denizens of the Woodstock Nation realise they have become (whisper it) businessmen. They set up Ben & Jerry's Foundation to do good. They start giving 7.5 per cent of Ben & Jerry's annual pre-tax profit to community-oriented projects. Ben also keeps his beard.

For marketing and publicity, Ben and Jerry have instinctive genius. During the Wall Street crash of 1987, they send a scoopmobile to Wall Street to serve That's Life and Economic Crunch ice cream free. They give waste ice cream to Vermont pigs who love it, except for Mint with Oreo Cookies. Pigs, it is revealed, do not like mint. Tours of Ben & Jerry's manufacturing plant are the top tourist attraction in the state.

The timing was brilliant. As the Me decade of the Seventies ripened into the Greed is Good Eighties, designer ice cream was fed by foodie fever, with Hagen Dazs as leader of the pack.

Ben & Jerry's responded to Hagen Dazs in a kind of ice-cream counterculture coup. Hagen Dazs, as everyone now knows, was invented in New Jersey and made in America. But it sold itself as fancy and foreign, delicious, elegant and expensive.

Ben & Jerry's, also expensive (between pounds 3 and pounds 4 a pint in the UK), also delicious, cast itself as 'funky' and 'unpretentious'. It was Garrison Keillor to Hagen Dazs's Ivana Trump, LL Bean to Giorgio Armani.

What's more, it made old hippies (often recycled, like Ben and Jerry, as new yuppies) feel good. Here was a company in the new mould, with a caring sharing corporate ethos, with child care and elder care and a 7:1 salary ratio at a time when many US CEOs (chief executive officers) made 93 times more than the average worker. Here was a company where officials wore jeans, liked rock music and worked hard, and where 90 per cent of employees were involved in community work. The same impulse that elected Bill Clinton made Ben & Jerry's big. Ben and Jerry did, however, once accept a award from President Ronald Reagan.

'Someone on Ronald Reagan's staff did not do their homework. If they did they would have understood we were opposed to Reagan's policies,' Ben says, adding: 'I did put on a jacket.'

Currently, Ben Cohen is 'chairperson' of the board (Jerry is 'vice chairperson') and CEO of what is a dollars 140m company. 'I never set out to be a CEO,' says Ben. 'My strengths and talents are in new product development, new flavours . . . conceptualising market promotions, working to develop socially beneficial integrations and synergies with day-to-day business practices . . .' Well, as the annual report (recycled paper) notes: 'We are not only growing; we are growing up.' But can you trust an ice-cream man over 40?

And so Ben & Jerry's is looking for a new CEO. To date, 17,000 applicants have written in, some in crayon, some in flowers, some in cake.

So here I am, still staring in the freezer, mesmerised by Ben & Jerry's newest flavours ('smooth no chunks') which feature Bobby Seale, Spike Lee, Pete Seeger and Buffy Sainte-Marie in the ad campaign, and if you can recognise them all, pass go straight to Woodstock '94. Finally, though, I decide on what is the emblematic Ben & Jerry's - not yet available in Britain, but coming soon. It is named after Wavy Gravy, America's longest-running hippie who has spent his life raising money to help cure kids of blindness. Wavy Gravy is Caramel Cashew Brazil Nut Ice Cream With a Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge Swirl and Roasted Almonds. It comes in a tie-dyed container complete with slogans by Wavy, who proclaims: 'The 90s are the 60s Standing on Their Head.' Yes, and eating - it is worth adding - Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

(Photographs omitted)