First loves—and first infatuations—never truly lose their power. Even if it’s been two decades since you last shared space with the object of your affection, memory makes them hyper-real, and present, and perfect. So it is with certain food too, like Carvel’s Fudgie the Whale ice cream cake, the once and eternal holy grail of birthday cakes for me.
For the uninitiated, Fudgie is a whale-shaped frozen cake composed of several layers. There’s a base of vanilla ice cream, topped with a generous band of chocolate cookie crumbs (known as “chocolate crunchies” in official Carvel parlance), which in turn is topped with chocolate ice cream, which is covered in a glossy fudge icing with frozen whipped cream frosting piped thickly around the border. The outside edges are coated in more crunchies (the website says vanilla ones, but there’s photographic evidence of chocolate crunchies outside too), and there is a face drawn on with more white frosting: an eyebrow, an eye, and a mouth, although their particular form and resulting expression vary widely. You might get a happy or abashed Fudgie, or one who looks more…grimly determined—but the taste will not waver (unless you prefer different ice cream flavors, which you can get if you please). Sometimes a message is iced onto Fudgie’s body as well, but that’s optional.
I remember all this, the look, the feel, the experience—the flavor, not quite so much (basic chocolate and vanilla, you know?), but the texture of the dense, soft, yet slightly crunchy cookie crumbs against the melting ice cream, and the airy-yet-firm resistance of the frozen mousse-like cream against everything else, plus the shiny, sticky fudge on top…it remains vivid in my mind, even though I haven’t tasted it since 1990-something.
Yet I still think of Fudgie often (disproportionately so, I’m sure), and was interested to finally learn more about how he came into being. When I was little, he didn’t have a history; he was sort of like the Easter bunny in that respect—he just was, and always had been, and ever would be, and his primary purpose in the universe was to bestow joy, primarily in the form of chocolate. I never stopped believing in Fudgie, yet he became as distant from me as magical rabbits once I moved across the country. Sadly, whereas Carvel shops are fairly densely scattered around the East Coast, out west, there is a marked dearth. The closest one to me now is in California, roughly 1,000 miles away—totally within road trip territory, yet too far to keep my former birthday tradition alive. And so I took to the Internet to get my Fudgie fix the only way I can from such a distance. Social media stalking, really. Fudgie is a public figure, but none of his accounts are private, so it didn’t feel too creepy…until I wrote those sentences, anyway.
Serendipity seems to be a recurring theme with Fudgie, and with Carvel in general. For instance: it turns out a stroke of luck—bad luck, but luck all the same, in the form of a flat tire—may be to thank for the existence of Carvel ice cream shops in the first place. Back in 1929, Tom Carvel (formerly known as Athanasios Thomas Karvelas) used a $15 loan from the future Mrs. Carvel (Agnes Stewart) to purchase an ice cream truck. While driving it around Hartsdale, New York on Memorial Day weekend in 1934, the aforementioned flat forced him to pull into the parking lot of a pottery shop. Although the ice cream began to melt, he hustled to sell it and found that holiday crowds loved the softer texture, which gave him the idea to invent the world’s first soft-serve machine. (Dairy Queen claims that their founder actually invented soft-serve around the same time, but we’re here for ice cream cake, so never mind all that for now.)
What’s most important is that, in 1936, Carvel purchased the pottery shop and moved in for good, which could have been the end of it, but—luckily for me and countless others—he kept on innovating and expanding.
He began selling his soft-serve machines to other ice cream outfits, but when those businesses failed to thrive, he took a more active role in their operation and established the franchise model that made Carvel an ice cream empire (and this is also why he’s been dubbed “the father of franchising”).
By the 1970s, Carvel was going strong, but they weren’t just going to rest on their frozen laurels. And so began the proliferation of their novelty ice cream cakes. Cookie Puss came first, although I must admit, I had no direct exposure to that iconic and slightly alarming visage in my youth. (Intentionally or not, Cookie Puss bears some resemblance to Tom Carvel himself, but the man’s eyes were not that wildly hypnotic.)
Cookie Puss debuted in 1972, and Fudgie the Whale followed in 1977. According to one of the inventors of the whale-shaped cake, it was originally covered with fudge to keep the tail from breaking off—another happy fluke! Fudgie was specifically created for Father’s Day, and for the occasion, he is still often emblazoned with the slogan: “For a Whale of a Dad.” I’m immensely grateful that (a) he was allowed to become a year-round staple, and (b) there was never a similarly worded message on my birthday cakes.
I was okay not knowing that an awkward hammerhead shark-esque version of the current Fudgie mascot once existed—yet I also can’t stop looking back at it; even in his ungainly adolescent years, Fudgie was captivating.
Fudgie is also versatile. At Christmastime, he’s flipped on his head and cloaked in red and white frosting to stand in for Santa Claus (clock that hat), and if you prefer a female Fudgie, you can get one with pink piping, icing eyelashes, and a little bow. Even so, he’s most enchanting in his original form—I know this to be true on a cellular level, but the fact that more than 50,000 Fudgie the Whale ice cream cakes are sold every year helps support the assertion.
I’m a little sad I don’t have childhood memories of the infamous early Carvel TV commercials (parodied on “SNL” a few years before I was even born), but I am overjoyed that they are enshrined in the virtual pop culture museum that is the Internet today.
Beyond the delightful Fudgie reference in a classic season 8 episode of “The Simpsons,” I was also previously unaware of Fudgie’s wider cultural cachet, but it makes total sense; there’s something so inherently endearing about him. No wonder he’s been mentioned in so many other shows (“Archer,” “The Office,” and “Billions,” among others), and in Patton Oswalt sets, and in a truly bizarre WWE bit that’s rather grotesque yet kind of fascinating. Even William Shatner is a Fudgie fan. It’s heartening, somehow, to know that Fudgie is so widely loved, but I cherish him most on a personal level.
Fudgie himself celebrated a big birthday last year: on June 1, 2017, he turned 40 (not that you’d know it by looking at him). Somehow, I was in the dark about this until now, so imagine my deep dismay to learn that there were limited-edition commemorative plush Fudgie the Whale toys available to anyone who donated to the Save the Whales foundation. Alas, they’re all gone now, residing cheerfully in other people’s homes.
Still, it’s good to find that Fudgie’s not only whimsical, charming, and delicious, but supports noble causes too. My love for him has only grown, and my heartache increased too, for he remains so elusive. I could try making a doppelganger at home (allegedly, you can make comparable crunchies by mixing Oreo crumbs with Magic Shell chocolate coating), but I know it wouldn’t be as good, and I definitely wouldn’t get the shape right, which is crucial.
I do have faith (or at least desperate hope masquerading as faith) that one day we will meet again, and I know I’ll be as giddy as I ever was to see that smiling face beneath the cellophane window of his Carvel box—but until then, I enjoy knowing that Fudgie remains out there in the world, making lots of other people just as happy.
Header image courtesy of Carvel.