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The Frozen Treat That Saved My Shitty Summer
On I-MEI Food's Brown Sugar Boba Ice Milk Bar and Japanese Breakfast's "Be Sweet"
I-MEI Food's Brown Sugar Boba Ice Milk Bar
My grandmother died in April.
Hell of a way to start the inaugural installment of a newsletter about candy and music, I know, but I’m not sure I would’ve found my current favorite treat, I-MEI Food’s Brown Sugar Boba Ice Milk Bar, if it weren’t for my drunk-on-grief brain demanding I eat everything in sight in an attempt to suffocate the sadness in the pit of my stomach.
When Grams died I did what so many people do when mourning a loved one — I panicked, shrugged off all my responsibilities, and spent each day doing all the things she loved to do.
She was gone. There was an imbalance in the universe. Someone had to appreciate the spring flowers.
I planted a garden and filled it with peonies. I hung a hummingbird feeder outside my kitchen window and watched half a dozen impossibly tiny blurs flit through the air. I read the books Grams liked to read, I ate the food she loved to eat, I played slots at her favorite casino, and I watched Mariners games on TV, late into the night, despite not knowing the first thing about professional baseball. Grams loved the Mariners.
It was a half-hearted trip to Costco — an obnoxiously predictable effort to distract my sorrow in a warehouse filled with consumerism — that brought these boba pops and me together. It had been two months since Grams died and, having exhausted all other activities, I was planning on buying all the pre-packaged food I could fit in a cart because if I was going to sit at home and be sad and feel worthless I was going to sit at home and be sad and feel worthless on a throne of snacks.
I was looking around the frozen dessert section hoping to find sherbert Push Up Pops. You remember Push Up Pops, right? Grams bought them in bulk and kept them in the freezer out in the garage for us grandkids. The best.
While searching through the glass freezer doors, a gold and black box caught my eye. Across the front, in bold white and gold letters, read “Brown Sugar Boba Ice Milk Bar.”
Boba? I love boba! Brown sugar boba? Even better!! A brown sugar boba popsicle!? I had to have it. I bought the box of 12 for $13.
This ice cream pop, produced by Taiwan-based confectionary company I-MEI Foods, is perfect. It is a brown sugar boba drink frozen in time. Black gummy pearls levitate in the swirling brown sugar syrup and vanilla ice cream base. It’s not as sweet as you’d think — the sugar’s flavor is deep, like a really good caramel sauce, and the ice milk base is creamy and bright.
The frozen boba is chewier than when used in a drink, causing the little balls to stick to your teeth with more tenacity than usual, but it isn’t annoying. It’s cute, really. Like the boba just wants to hug you a little bit longer before being swallowed into the dark pit of your stomach.
I ran to the kitchen to grab another the moment I finished the first. It had been what felt like an entire ocean of time since I had experienced any pleasure that wasn't tethered to my grief.
That’s what Grams loved to do the most. Gardening, reading, birdwatching — all lovely — but she truly found joy in life’s small surprises and she encouraged the same for everyone else.
The peonies I planted are dead. I abandoned them. I won’t let the same happen to Grams’ sense of wonder.
“Be Sweet” by Japanese Breakfast
Michelle Zauner, singer and songwriter of adventurous pop band Japanese Breakfast, knows more about loss and grief than she probably cares to. Her mom died of cancer when she was 25 and she wrote a stunning memoir about being a caretaker for the last year of her mother’s life — Crying in H Mart was released on April 20, nine days after Grams died. It took me months to bring myself to read it.
What I could dip my toe into, though, was Japanese Breakfast’s new record, Jubilee. The difference is right there in the titles. Crying in H Mart is heartbreak; Jubilee is the healing.
In an interview with Alexa Lee for Vox, Zauner said:
“In some ways, through purging everything I needed to for Crying in H Mart, I was able to begin this new chapter. I had written two albums about grief, and I still felt like there was so much left to say about that experience. I finally feel like I’ve said everything I need to say about loss and grief and my mom in this way. I felt ready to tackle a new scene.”
I’ve found comfort in the dichotomy of Zauner’s two projects. She experienced devastating hands-on grief and though it fully consumed her at times she was able to love again, to be loved again, and she dumped all that happiness into a fun-as-fuck record with exuberant, celebratory dance-pop. There are sax solos! It is wonderful!
As isolating as grief is, we’re never alone in it. Nor does it last forever. (Or, at least, it doesn’t keep its all-encompassing superstrength forever.) That’s true for Zauner, that’s true for me, that’s true for you.
For better or worse, grief is always morphing its shape and in doing so it leaves pockets — small at first, larger after time — for happiness to take hold. Or maybe it’s that we’re the ones always shapeshifting, and grief just has a harder time holding on. I suppose it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that there is joy, even after — especially after? — monumental loss. There are small surprises, there are love songs, and there are brown sugar boba ice cream bars.