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Celebrating 20 years of Phish Food

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A conversation with Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s

Burlington, Vermont is home to a number of American institutions, two of which came together 20 years ago and are still partners today: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the band Phish. 

On February 20, 1997, Ben & Jerry’s launched a new flavor honoring the Burlington-formed band with their own flavor - Phish Food.  The decadent treat is jammed with thick, rich chocolate ice cream, swirled with gooey marshmallow, caramel and swimming with fudge fish.

According to Cohen, bestowing a flavor upon Vermont’s favorite musical sons was a no-brainer. Following the success of Cherry Garcia (a flavor named for Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead), it only made sense to name a flavor for Phish. 

“Phish Food was the last Ben and Jerry’s flavor that I was personally involved in creating,” Cohen told me during a phone interview.

Cohen and partner Jerry Greenfield sold Ben & Jerry’s to multinational consumer goods company Unilever in April of 2000 and no longer have any involvement in the day-to-day management of the company. One condition of the sale was that Ben & Jerry’s would continue to be manufactured in Burlington, using locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible.

Cohen recalled that the members of Phish were very receptive to the idea of having their own flavor, a concept first floated to them in 1995. 

“I remember going over to the Phish office here in Burlington with prototype pints,” Cohen told me. “They’d eat some and give us some suggestions. There was a question at one point of whether it should have a wisp of caramel in it or a wisp of raspberry. They went with the caramel and that’s where it is today.”

Cohen says that he had been “kind of obsessed” with the idea of creating a new flavor featuring chocolate and marshmallow. “I wanted a marshmallow swirl that was really thick and had substance and was chewy,” he said. There was only one problem. Marshmallow, by its nature, is an airy confection.

“A tremendous amount of flavor development went into this,” Cohen said. “In order to have that chewy marshmallow texture while retaining the flavor, we came up with something that isn’t technically marshmallow. It’s really a fondant, which is a candy-makers term.”

Fondant is often used by cake makers as an icing replacement for frosting. On TLC’s “Cake Boss” featuring Buddy Valastro, for instance, you will see that Buddy uses fondant far more frequently than traditional frosting. 

Six months before Phish Food made its official debut, Ben & Jerry appeared with Phish in front of 70,000 fans at the band’s festival dubbed The Clifford Ball, held at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in upstate New York, about 75 minutes from Burlington.

During the second set of the festival’s second day, Phish surprised fans by bringing Ben & Jerry onstage to sing the rarely performed “Brother.”

“It is firmly imprinted in my memory,” Cohen told me with a laugh. “We only had one line in that song.  It went like (sings) ‘Oh, oh, oh…somebody’s jumping in the tub with your brother,’ or something like that.”

On the DVD boxed set of the festival released in 2009, we can see Ben & Jerry’s brief appearance on the song, their nervousness masked by a willingness to give it all they had. Backstage between sets, Phish rehearsed the song with the duo and gave them one piece of advice designed to boost their confidence.

“Backstage, Jerry and I couldn’t quite get it right.  Finally, right before we were supposed to go on, Trey (Anastasio) said ‘Strong and wrong, baby! Strong and wrong!’” 

Phish assisted the launch of Phish Food ice cream with a benefit concert held at Burlington’s Flynn Theatre on March 18, 1997. Proceeds from the show (introduced by Ben & Jerry) went to the band’s newly-formed Waterwheel Foundation, which collects the group’s Phish Food royalties to this day and uses them to maintain the environmental well-being of Lake Champlain and its watershed.

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