Ice cream entrepreneur Victoria Lai recently unveiled MarionBerry, the latest summer flavor at her Yards Park shop Ice Cream Jubilee. The deep blue scoops have a distinct, tangy flavor from the Oregon-grown marionberries—similar to blackberries—and crunchy Graham cracker crumbs.
“Marionberries have a bright, complex flavor,” says Lai. “And the name makes people laugh. Anything that can make strangers laugh is a joyful moment.”
Hizzoner Marion Barry would have loved the eponymous dessert.
“We were familiar with marionberries,” Cora Masters Barry, his widow, says. “We had marionberry jams in our cupboard.”
Lai makes MarionBerry the same way she mixes most of her flavors. She starts by pouring cream from Maryland’s South Mountain Creamery into her ice cream maker, and adds egg yolks, sugar, and skim milk. Out comes the unflavored ice cream, like a blank palette. Then she stirs in jugs of marionberry preserves and sprinkles in Graham crackers for texture.
“Every bite tastes a little bit different,” says Lai.
Ice cream has swirled through Victoria Lai’s life, starting as a kid growing up in Houston. Her father often studied or worked through dinner. Victoria and her sister would be tucked in bed when he came home. “Who wants ice cream?” he would ask, and the girls would throw off the covers and celebrate.
“Since then, ice cream always meant good times to me,” she says.
At Wellesley College she fell for politics, and worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign after graduation. She earned a law degree at Fordham University and clerked for a federal judge.
“I kept asking: what makes me happy?,” she says.
After working all day, she would ditch her suit for an apron, making pie crust by night as an apprentice at Brooklyn pie shop Four and Twenty Blackbirds. She loved the food, the people, the conversations. In 2010 Lai landed a job as a counsel in Homeland Security and moved to the District. By the time she reached DC, Marion Barry was a city council member, representing Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River. The city was changing rapidly, and the west bank of the river was transforming from an industrial wasteland into a green space with parks, trails, and a waterfront community where Lai would eventually open her shop.
Lai started an ice cream blog and challenged herself to come up with four new flavors a week. She began making big batches at the Union Kitchen food incubator, and delivered tubs to a few local markets via Uber. In the summer of 2013, Union Market held its first DC Scoop competition, and Lai’s Banana Bourbon Caramel won first prize for Fan Favorite.
The following week an executive at development company Forest City called her, and asked if she wanted to open an ice cream shop in The Yards along the Anacostia River.
“Am I crazy to leave my job?” she wondered, but ran the numbers and decided that she might be able to pull it off. She opened Ice Cream Jubilee in July, 2014. Now summer afternoons and evenings are party scenes on the small park by her store.
Lai’s Marion Berry is a unique flavor on this coast—Oregon’s Tillamook makes Marionberry Pie Ice Cream—though it seems Washington businesses are embracing the West Coast berries as their own. Bardo Brewpub in Northeast just released a Marion Berry Blackberry Pale Ale. Perhaps Hizzflavor will become a signature DC staple, like half-smokes at Ben’s Chili Bowl. It could be the sweetest part of his legacy.