The ice cream of the crop

History: Diamonds, good food and a good story are a traveling guy's best friend.

July 17, 1999|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMNIST

Simmons Grocery Store in rural Carroll County is one of the best places to be on a summer day. It has a baseball diamond and homemade ice cream.

The store, a white clapboard building, sits on the picturesque country lane of Snydersburg Road, west of Hampstead. Behind the store is a pristine baseball field, its grass shimmering in the sunlight. Little Leaguers play here on weekends; church leagues fill the park on weeknights.

Inside the store, an old, white freezer is filled with tempting tubs of homemade vanilla, chocolate and, on this day, fresh strawberry ice cream. The store is an antiquarian delight that opened in 1928 with a wood floor, the kind shopkeepers sweep in Norman Rockwell paintings.

As I sit on a well-worn bench in the store, I look out the back window at the baseball field, its scoreboard still carrying the results of the previous evening's contest. When I turn and look through the front screen door, I see corn in a neighboring field swaying in the summer breeze. I almost expect James Earl Jones or another star from "Field of Dreams" to step out of the cornfield and stroll into the shop, looking for a few innings of work and ice cream.

I wouldn't share my strawberry ice-cream cone. It is a treasure, a remarkable marriage of cream and fruit. And it only costs 90 cents.

Scooping ice cream into cones, pints and gallons is Marjorie Nagle, a small, determined woman of 83 years. She tells me that the 75-year-old ice-cream recipe has been handed down through four generations, starting with her parents, Joe and Estie Simmons, who opened the store. Since then, it has been passed on to her husband, Philip, who died last March; her daughter, Jean, and son-in-law, Carroll Neudecker; and to their daughter, Cheryl Mathis, and son, Larry Neudecker.

Today, Mrs. Nagle has help. Kristin Mathis, a freshman at North Carroll High School, and 10-year-old Roger Mathis, whose career goal is to play third base on the field behind the family store, are keeping their great-grandmother company.

As I finish my cone, Mrs. Nagle reminds me that in a few weeks peaches will be ripe and fresh peach ice cream will be in the freezer. I feel invigorated and ready to navigate the back roads of northern Baltimore County as I continue my cross-state wanderings in search of good food and local lore.

My goal on this day is to end up in Harford County at the Ballpark Restaurant in a place called Street. This is scenic country, a good place to get lost. During my wanderings, I see stately homes, tall trees, gleaming minivans, jumping horses and leafy bike trails. I cannot, however, find Street.

I finally locate the tiny community with a post office bearing the name, Street, but there is no restaurant. A couple of fellows cutting grass tell me the Ballpark actually is closer to the community of Dublin, several miles away.

By the time I arrive at the Ballpark on U.S. 1, it is early afternoon, and the two-room roadhouse is full of lunchtime customers and baseball memorabilia. The former baseball diamond that was used by amateur players in the Susquehanna League during the 1940s now has houses sitting on it. But the restaurant, which started off as a hot-dog stand, is a seven-day-a-week operation with a baseball theme.

The walls are covered with pennants and photographs of baseball players -- among them the late Cal Ripken Sr., who used to drop by from his home in nearby Aberdeen. Vintage Babe Ruth and Brooks Robinson baseball cards are here, too. Most of the decorations are donated by customers, says Joy Frederick, who runs the restaurant with her husband, Bill.

I take a seat underneath a Harold Baines baseball bat and next to a tabletop decorated with baseball cards of players such as Jim Essian, a lesser-known catcher for the Oakland A's. I try to order sausage gravy spread on biscuits, a Ballpark signature dish. Alas, it is only served at breakfast.

I settle for the bean soup. It is a good choice, a flavorful mix of beans, potatoes and carrots. A well-made soup is usually a sign that the kitchen knows what it is doing. Sure enough, the grilled chicken breast with tangy barbecue sauce is delicious, even though it carries the suggestive name "Second Base."

"My cook, Joe Brooks, dreams those names up," Joy Frederick explains.

Instead of zipping across the Susquehanna on Interstate 95, I take the slower, more memorable route, the narrow stretch of U.S. 1 that runs on the top of the Conowingo Dam.

As I ease along the two-lane bridge, the massive scale of the dam and the river dwarf me. By the time I reach the eastern side of the bridge, I feel like I have accomplished something. I have crossed the mighty Susquehanna.

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