“I Albert Doumar,” the proclamation I begins, “come from a royal family in the world of ice cream. We Doumars proudly claim title of creators of the ice cream cone …”
These are deep and treacherous waters; the ice-cream cone is part of the great trinity of American delicacies, and as with the hot dog and the hamburger, its paternity is the object of many conflicting claims. But Al Doumar can ratify his family’s ice-cream aristocracy with an impressive mechanical credential, and he is busy working it next to the scrapbook that opens with his proclamation. It is the simple but ingenious ice-cream cone maker that his uncle Abe invented and put into service in 1905.
In a long, low oven four waffle irons centered over four gas rings sit side by side on parallel tracks. Each iron can pivot over the flame; each can be slid out and opened. Doumar demonstrates the whole process, effortlessly, four times a minute.
The iron to the far left has been over the fire long enough; he pulls it out on its track, lifts up the top, wraps the still-soft waffle around a tapered wooden shaper, and drops it into a cooling rack. Then he ladles up a couple of ounces of batter and dollops it onto the vacated iron (“Grandma’s Teflon,” he says—“nothing sticks to cast iron once it’s seasoned”) and slides it back over the flame. He repeats the process, up and down the line, flipping the irons halfway through the cooking, calmly reminiscing all the while.
“My uncle Abe came over here from Lebanon, and he was part of the Ancient City of Jerusalem show at the St. Louis world’s fair. But that shut down at six, so he’d go over and work a few hours at a food stand making waffles. He got the idea of rolling them into cones, and by the time the fair was over he’d thought up this machine.”
A machinist in Hoboken, New Jersey, built it for him, of iron and brass. “But I took all the brass off or painted it black. Otherwise you spend your life polishing brass.” There’s only a glint left here and there on the slides. “He set it up in a booth on Coney Island, on the Bowery right near Steeplechase Park. He had three partners; listen to their names—Zagbini, Hawaini, and Ganim.” Ganim bought them all out at the end of the summer, and Abe Doumar took his machine south, working the state fairs, ending up in Florida at season’s end, and eventually leaving behind a string of family-run ice-cream stands. There was plenty of family to run them: Abe had twelve siblings.
Al Doumar’s father eventually took charge of a concession at Norfolk’s great amusement resort, Ocean View Park. The four-iron cone maker had long been superseded by an all-electric prodigy that pumped the batter and spat out the finished cones. On his best day ever, in 1925, he sold 22,600 ice-cream cones.
The 1933 hurricane put an end to that, and the family moved inland to found Doumar’s, selling ice-cream cones, of course, and—the Doumars are an adaptable clan—barbecue. “The North Carolina kind,” says Al Doumar, “that’s made with vinegar.”
In 1958 McDonald’s came to Norfolk. The barbecue joints began to fold. Al Doumar fought back; he brought his old four-iron cone maker out of storage and set it up on the sidewalk in front of his shop. It was a crowd pleaser, and it saved the day; right now he has thirty-five employees.
It’s still a crowd pleaser, and today the crowd it’s pleasing is in the Plaza Hotel, a superb Manhattan hostelry built two years after the cone maker. The machine has been brought north for a visit by the Department of Development of Norfolk (“Where Business Is a Pleasure”), which is putting on a luncheon reception. Ice-cream cones for dessert.
“Well, that’s about four hundred so far,” says Al Doumar. “I used to make all the cones, and then one day my father said, ‘Al, it’s your job to supervise. Go supervise.’” Slide, turn, open. “So I did, and after a while my hands were hurting, and the doctor told me it’s carpal tunnel syndrome, and they have to operate on it. Well, I put that off, and then one of my kids went on vacation, and I started running the machine again, and it went away. As long as I make cones, I won’t need an operation.”
Slide, turn, open. Someone asks how often the machine is in use. “Three hundred and sixty-five days a year. No, I’m sorry, that’s not true. I don’t work Sundays.”
Beneath the richly molded ceiling of the Plaza’s grand ballroom, the stacks of cones mount up. By now their aroma has filled every corner of the immense hotel, very faint, but sweetly compelling enough to make clear how despite all the riotous distractions of Coney’s old Bowery—the beer halls, the shooting galleries, the urgent, rushing clatter of the coasters—it could draw crowds enough to build a good living for Abe Doumar and all his sisters and brothers.