A woman carries an ice pop in one hand and a napkin in the other as she chases a toddler, trying to wipe away a stream of sticky red liquid running down his chin.
Almost every other person you see has a similar pop in hand on a recent afternoon at the Tuesday Farmers Market in Northampton. This is because pop master Julie Tuman, 38, is on the scene with a freezer full of fruity treats. She is ready for rush hour with eight flavors that don’t fall into the usual cherry, grape and orange varieties. Hers include nectarine black tea, carrot ginger and beet apple.
She lounges at her stand — a freezer mounted on a tricycle topped by a yellow umbrella — welcoming customers to Crooked Stick Pops with her cheerful smiles. Many know her by name and come seeking the treats she sells at festivals and farmers markets throughout western Massachusetts.
“You are basically getting addicted to fruit,” she said of her repeat patrons. “It’s a good addiction.”
While an ice pop is usually considered a pretty plain dessert, many of Tuman’s concoctions are quite sophisticated, infused with herbs like tulsi basil. They are more like cocktails on a stick — minus the alcohol.
The cantaloupe with mint and watermelon pops are favorites — refreshing and not too sweet.
The strawberry lemonade, the most popular, hits you with a tangy jolt and the carrot ginger has an earthy texture with a spicy undertone.
“You know those products that if you have it too much it won’t be special anymore?” asked Dave Rothstein of Florence as he nibbled on a cantaloupe mint pop. “This is not one of those.” He has been a regular since he discovered Tuman’s treats earlier this summer.
Playing with fruit
When Tuman is not out bringing her pops to her customers, she is blending and experimenting with flavors in a rented mill-building studio near the Eastworks Building on Pleasant Street in Easthampton.
With just four sinks, two hot plates and a powerful freezer, she has been whipping up hundreds of pops since launching her company in May.
“I started this business because I like Popsicles, so now I have a freezer with 500 in it,” she said. “I’ve always been a fruit girl. When other kids wanted chips, I wanted strawberries.”
Tuman has no formal culinary training; she has a master’s degree in Chinese from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, which is what brought her to the Pioneer Valley 15 years ago.
In the years before Crooked Stick Pops, Tuman worked as a recruiter for an international education company.
When she realized she had had enough of her travel-intensive job, she started toying with the idea of opening her own business.
Since her husband, Will, likes mixing cocktails and she enjoys cooking, she thought about opening a bar or restaurant.
But then, after visiting a gourmet pop shop while on vacation in Florida, she knew what she wanted to do.
“There are lots of pop shops all over the place, but none here,” she said.
She set about learning to make the pops from cookbooks and experimentation.
She says she spends up to 13 hours a day, several days a week mixing fruit combinations in her kitchen.
As she works, she sometimes has tango or pop music playing. Other days she listens to mystery books on tape to occupy her mind.
On one recent day, dressed in jeans, a tank top and rainbow clogs, she was chopping local, early-season apples, tossing the cores aside and placing the slices in a pot.
Apple puree is a key ingredient in many of the ice pops. It helps balance certain flavors and adds a smooth texture, she explained.
“If I were to make a Popsicle just from raspberries it would actually overwhelm you. If I don’t put apple in — your mouth is just burnt,” she said. “The apple puree mutes the flavor just a little bit without diluting it.”
When the pot is brimming with apple slices, after a few moments it starts to simmer, and the apples slowly turn to mush. Juice bubbles and splashes into the air.
The sweet smell of applesauce fills the room as steam rises from the pot.
“It’s not a bad gig,” Tuman said, as she stirred the mush. But it takes hard work to keep up with demand. In a average week she says, she sells 500 ice pops for $4 each.
“This is the glamour of the Popsicle business,” she said. “I spend half my days playing with fruit, half my days washing things.”
Tuman boils down herbs like ginger with sugar and water. The syrupy remains are strained into apple or mango puree before freezing into ice pops.
Imagination is a big part of creating new recipes. “I get a taste in my head and I think, ‘Oh, I can totally make this.”
She is now experimenting with beets to make a red velvet chocolate ice pop. She has already come up with more than a 100 flavors, though she typically has 15 on hand at any given time.
Most of her ice pops are fruit based — but without fruit chunks, because no one likes biting into hard things, she says — and contain a bit of lemon or lime juice, which brighten the flavor.
Ginger is also a big ingredient in her kitchen — but since it’s not raw —it doesn’t bite. Her blueberry ginger pop for instance, is sweet with a smooth texture and just a tad of spice.
A little sugar is added to all of the pops to keep them at just the right consistency, she said. Without the sugar, many of them, like the watermelon pop, would be as hard as an ice cube, she said.
Tuman also takes the time to make rice milk by hand to thin out thick pops like the carrot or avocado. She likes rice milk for its neutral flavor, but generally tries to avoid using dairy because many customers have food allergies. She says she also goes to great lengths to avoid the preservatives in store-bought brands.
“I don’t do anything the easy way.”
Tuman even makes sweet potato pop for dogs. Instead of a stick, a doggie treat that looks like a bone, sticks out of the side. “It’s been a hot summer and puppies need something, too,” she said.
Her inaugural summer in the ice pop business has not been without obstacles.
After she moved into her kitchen studio, the electricity went out and her refrigerator stopped working, leaving her frantically trying to save her pops.
Then she had a hard time getting the sticks to stay straight in the pops.
That’s when, she says, she had a “pop epiphany,” and decided to embrace the crooked sticks and name her business Crooked Stick Pops.
“It’s amazing how many people will notice and ask me if there is something wrong with my Popsicles,” she said. “People will say, ‘My stick is crooked, can I have another one?’ and I’ll say, ‘Not from me.’ ”
Overall, though, she says the business is running smoothly, and the ice pops are going fast.
While she doesn’t have kids herself, she says she enjoys her youngest customers
“Kids love the Popsicle lady,” she said. “All of a sudden thousands of children wanted to be my best friend.”
Some days are hit or miss, but by mid-day on that recent Tuesday at the Northampton Farmers Market nearly half of her flavors had sold out.
“Making Popsicles has just been really rewarding in ways I didn’t expect,” she said. “People are eating this thing that I made and it is making their day 1 percent better.”