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Mystery of Moon Mist, the ice cream flavour taking over Toronto

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HALIFAX—Even the most dedicated fans of Moon Mist, the ice cream that for at least half a century has been one of Nova Scotia’s best-kept secrets, admit it’s a strange flavour combination. Banana, grape and bubblegum? It sounds like a mash-up created by a hangry three-year-old after a long day out in the sun.

“It’s hard to explain Moon Mist to people who didn’t grow up on the East Coast,” says Carrie Macmillan, who lives in Toronto but was raised on Moon Mist in Nova Scotia.

“It’s just so fruitful and flavourful and flamboyant.”

On their own, the flavours are nothing special, but swirled together in a pastel rainbow of yellow, blue and purple, they make a dreamy mix. The scent is candy-sweet. You can’t taste the colour, but it’s part of the joy.

For decades, part of the allure and magic of Moon Mist was that it was only available on the East Coast. Atlantic Canada expats returning to the eastern provinces on vacation would stop for a scoop at their hometown ice cream barn, an annual tradition to share with their children, spouses and friends.

A few weeks ago, Macmillan, 39, walked into an East York ice cream parlour with her three kids and did a double take when she saw the distinctive pale yellow, sky blue and soft purple swirl in the freezer.

Moon Mist had come to Toronto.

Popular with children of the ’80s and ’90s, Moon Mist has experienced a recent surge in acclaim spurred in part by its Instagrammable colours, its widespread availability in new supermarket-sized tubs in the Atlantic provinces, and businesses marketing merchandise to nostalgic millennials. You can now buy Moon Mist hoodies, Moon Mist candles, Moon Mist yarn, Moon Mist doughnuts and Moon Mist vodka. At a Halifax hair salon you can have your hair dyed in Moon Mist colours.

While many people celebrated Moon Mist’s arrival in Ontario, some with East Coast roots, including Macmillan, found it disorienting. “Part of what has become so special about it to me is that you can only get it at home,” Macmillan said.

The sense of magic that comes with having something from “home” can be hard to explain. But for those of us whose identities are tied up in a place we no longer live, it can turn an ice cream cone into something more significant.

Kawartha Dairy, based in Bobcaygeon, Ont., launched its new Moon Mist flavour earlier this year, marketing it as “an east coast favourite.” This was the ice cream Macmillan found at her local scoop shop. It’s the first time Moon Mist has been widely available outside the Atlantic provinces. (Smaller regional ice cream shops, like Lois ‘N’ Frima’s in Ottawa and The Big Scoop in Duncan, B.C., sell Moon Mist-inspired flavours by the scoop.)

Kawartha started working on its product last year after a customer with an East Coast connection suggested the flavour, said Dana Somerville, vice-president of marketing.

“It has been generating a lot of excitement,” Somerville said. “It’s definitely a favourite in my house.”

Tammy Wiseberg, owner of Carter’s Ice Cream in Danforth East, had never heard of the flavour before she received her first tub this spring, but said it’s now one of her top sellers.

“It’s going gangbusters.”

Eleanor, 5; Simon, 3, and Hannah, one and a half, indulge this week outside Carter's.

Many customers with East Coast roots have been excited to see it, while others feel a bit conflicted, Wiseberg said. “Some people are surprised to see it here. They feel like it’s their own little hidden treasure from back east,” she said. And they want to keep it that way.

I thought about this while sharing a Moon Mist cone with my daughter on a trip to Halifax this week. I haven’t told my kids that the ice cream they enjoy on trips to my home province is available in Ontario now. I’m sure I will, or they’ll see it for themselves, but I’m holding out.

To better understand the complicated feelings a simple dairy treat was dredging up, I set out to explore its mysterious history.

Kids who grew up eating Moon Mist in Atlantic Canada in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were getting it from ice cream shops supplied by one of two major Nova Scotia dairies: Farmers or Scotsburn.

Farmers was first to launch the flavour, in 1973, according to Agropur Cooperative, a Quebec-based dairy giant that now owns both Farmers and Scotsburn ice cream products.

There’s almost no one left to tell the 50-year-old origin story, but a retired farmer gave me a tip: “The person you want to talk to,” he said, “is Kelly Kale.”

Kelly Kale, a Halifax food scientist and university instructor, was head of research and development at Farmers for four decades. It took a while to find him, in part because Kelly Kale isn’t his given name.

Chandarrao Kale (pronounced KAH-lay) became Kelly Kale (pronounced like the leafy green) in the early 1970s while studying food science at the University of Utah, where locals, rather than learn to pronounce his real name, gave him a new one.

Now 79, Kale lives in a quiet suburb in Halifax’s west end. As a child growing up in Pune, near Mumbai, Kale would beg his mother for money when the ice cream truck came around. “I was very crazy about ice cream,” he said. He developed 196 flavours before retiring from full-time work in 2016.

Kelly Kale is a Halifax food scientist who worked for Farmers Dairy when the company launched Moon Mist, an ice cream flavour that for decades was only found on the East Coast.

Kale is not the only ice cream expert with a Moon Mist origin story, but we’ll start with him.

In the early 1970s, Kale travelled to Nova Scotia to visit a friend. He loved Halifax and thought it seemed like a good place to raise children. “Are there any dairies here?” he asked his friend.

Kale visited Farmers Dairy and impressed the owner by fixing a production problem that saved a $60,000 batch of cottage cheese. He was hired on the spot.

Moon Mist was the first ice cream flavour Kale worked on, he said as we sat in his living room this week. He shared what he knows with the caveat that it happened a long time ago.

Kale told me something I’d never heard: Moon Mist, he said, was named after the Misty Moon Show Bar, a legendary music club that opened on Gottigen Street in 1969, comparable to Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. This was a delicious detail. A celebrated children’s ice cream treat was named after an infamous rock venue tied to Halifax’s identity “as a ‘drinking town’ overflowing with bars, music, and vice,” wrote Saint Mary’s University graduate student Charlene Boyce in a master’s thesis on the Misty Moon, which closed in 1994.

Kale recalled that Farmers worked with a U.S. company that produced and sold natural and artificial flavours for use in dairy products. Farmers made the ice cream and then added the liquid flavours, testing different concentrations before settling on a mix. Kale believed, but wasn’t certain, that the U.S. company introduced the three flavours that would become Moon Mist, but he wasn’t sure who suggested combining them.

What Kale remembered with certainty was that everyone loved the colour combination. Someone on the development team suggested naming it Rainbow, Kale said, but the colours were more reminiscent of the subtle shades of light around the moon after sunset. Kale didn’t come up with the name — he never set foot in the Misty Moon — but he had a personal connection: his name, Chandarrao, means moon.

It’s possible that another Halifax ice cream maker created the Moon Mist flavour combination before Farmers. Peter O’Brien, a Dalhousie University classics professor, said it was family lore that his grandfather, Bruce Hart, invented Moon Mist sometime before or after the Second World War while studying in America at a school his grandfather jokingly called “Ice Cream University.”

“I’m not claiming any rock-solid memory or evidence of this stuff,” O’Brien said. “This was the talk around the table when I was a kid.”

O’Brien, 54, said his grandfather’s original Moon Mist recipe, which was sold under the family’s Polar Ice Cream brand, was different from the combination used today, with blue raspberry instead of bubblegum.

When I first heard these two stories — the one about the Misty Moon Show Bar, and the one about Bruce Hart inventing Moon Mist at Ice Cream University — I thought they contradicted each other. But it turns out they might match up to form the flavour’s true origin story.

When I told Kelly Kale the Bruce Hart story, Kale said it’s possible the original Moon Mist Recipe came from Hart, and Kale didn’t know about it. “I was new to Canada,” Kale said. He wouldn’t have known about existing flavours local dairies had made in the past. It’s possible the Farmers recipe came from Bruce Hart and not a flavour company, he said.

When I spoke to Peter O’Brien about the Misty Moon, he thought Kale’s story sounded plausible. His grandfather, he said, “was definitely not a Misty Moon kind of guy.” At some point, likely in the 1960s, the Hart family sold their ice cream business to a company that would become Farmers Dairy, O’Brien said.

It’s possible Hart created the infamous flavour combination, and then Farmers, after acquiring the Hart family ice cream business, started selling and branding the ice cream in the early 1970s, under the name Moon Mist.

Another clue supports this theory. Farmers’ original recipe, according to Agropur, was made with blue raspberry, not bubblegum. Just like Bruce Hart’s.

Scotsburn introduced its own competing Moon Mist flavour after Farmers, sometime in the late 1970s or early ’80s, using blue bubblegum. Agropur phased out the Farmers Moon Mist recipe in 2017 and now sells only the bubblegum version.

Moon Mist is Agropur’s second-most popular flavour, next to vanilla, in the four provinces where it is sold: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

If the origins are hazy, one thing is clear: Moon Mist belongs to Nova Scotia.

Which brings us back to Carrie Macmillan and her mixed feelings about finding Moon Mist at her local ice cream shop in Toronto this summer. She couldn’t bring herself to try it right away.

“Raising kids in a city, and the largest city in Canada, is so different from how I grew up in so many ways, and it feels really foreign to me at times,” Macmillan says. “It’s really nice to be with them when they get to experience those little nuggets from my own childhood.”

She laughed and said it’s silly to get emotional about an ice cream. But I get it.

Moon Mist has become a tradition that I share with my children on our fleeting annual trips to Nova Scotia, during which I pack in as many East Coast experiences as possible — beach hikes, fiddle music, lobster boils — both for myself and for them, to immerse them in my childhood experiences, knowing that my city kids may never fully get it but hoping something will stick.

This is a lot to pin on an ice cream cone, Macmillan said, and I agree. Ice cream is supposed to be fun, after all.

Macmillan tried a scoop of Moon Mist in Toronto with her kids this week.

“It was good,” she said, “but not quite the same.”

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