The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street encompasses many stories, intertwining the rise of a woman ice cream mogul with an immigrant’s story, the twentieth century American Jewish desire to assimilate, women’s rights issues, poverty, world wars, McCarthyism, the youth movement of the Sixties, Reagan’s trickle-down economics, and the overreach of government.
Young Malka’s family immigrates to New York City to escape the pogroms. Crippled by an ice cream cart, Maika is abandoned by her own parents but is taken in by the family who caused the accident. Through wit and cunning she learns the secrets of the trade from her rescuers, an Italian family, and after falling in love and eventually marrying Albert, a handsome, dyslexic Jewish man, she transforms herself from a crippled dependent girl into Lillian Dunkle, the ice cream queen tycoon.
Readers are able to get a glimpse of the historical issues, many times with humor and wit. The scenes Malka shares with the Italian family skillfully show the similarities and immigrants. Other scenes depict government bureaucracy at its worst. “Oh the rigmorale she had to go through. Tax returns and even a psychological evaluation. What will they ask for next? A blood sample? Today, if one of our franchises wants to hire a sixteen-year-old to scoop ice cream for a summer, the management is required to provide more information than my entire family was asked to supply at Ellis Island.”
Lillian is a complex character. She can be driven, bitter, and rude while also being bold, loyal, and highly intelligent. This dual personality allows the reader to see that someone, especially a businesswoman, who has to develop a thick skin, can also be seen as a motherly figure. Lillian is both compelling and sympathetic.
Incredibly, Gilman is able to weave together American history, the Jewish experience, and ice cream. The reader will learn all about the ice cream business and how it was affected by important issues of the day, including the threat of new franchises like McDonald’s that also sold ice cream.
Anyone who wants a captivating story with a lot of humor, sensitivity, and Jewish wit should read The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. Readers will be taken on a journey through the decades with Lillian Dunkle, the celebrated matriarch of the ice cream business, as she recounts her life from penniless immigrant to an American food tycoon.