Three o’clock on a bright, late autumn afternoon and all the shops on Sand Springs’ Main Street are deserted – except for one.
The narrow corridor around the cheery, white-tiled counter of Big Dipper Creamery is packed with a horde of giggling school kids. Behind the counter, scooping out ice cream and wearing the happiest smile of them all, is Sami Cooper.
There’s a break in the crowd, so let’s follow her now to the tiny room in back where all the ice cream is carefully, lovingly made from scratch every day. Surprisingly, the first thing you see is an oven. Alongside is a woman carefully breaking eggs in a bowl. That’s Macy Hightower, their full time baker. She bakes all the cakes, dinner rolls and candies used in the ice cream.
There’s a spice rack nearby, though almost all the flavor ingredients are made in that room from local produce. For honeycomb lavender (“The first flavor I made where I knew I was really onto something,” recalls Sami), she steeps locally grown lavender buds into cream. Then Macy makes a honeycomb toffee from Sand Springs honey. Those eggs? That’s for the Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, an ice cream made with a real cake – a very rich and gooey cake – which is drenched in butterscotch icing, cut into little pieces, and mixed into cream cheese ice cream.
“And over there is Cosmo. He’s the heartbeat of the entire shop,” says Sami, pointing to a cute little batch freezer standing quietly in the corner. The dairy base, which is 14% butterfat (it’s the fat that gives it the rich, creamy taste), is mixed with the flavors and inclusions, then whipped and, afterwards, frozen to make sure big crystals don’t form and ruin the flavor.
“Super frozen!” adds a bearded man hauling pots to the sink.
“That’s my husband,” explains Sami. “Brian gave up a career as a surveyor in order to partner with me in this.”
Their marriage has been a great adventure. In 2012, they left Tulsa for Oregon, where they worked on a chestnut farm. Was it there that Sami learned the value of fresh, locally farmed ingredients? No, she explains. That was later, in Morocco.
“We lived in Rabat for a year,” she explains. “That’s where I cut my teeth cooking. We were surrounded with wonderful markets, packed with color and flavor.”
But didn’t she learn to cook earlier, during her two years in Vietnam?
“Oh no,” she replies. “Why would anyone ever cook in Vietnam? Oh, the restaurants there … best food of my life!”
Brian and Sami returned to Tulsa in 2017. Sami, who had taught in Vietnam and Morocco, continued to teach kindergarten. And then, suddenly, the thought popped into her head of making ice cream “just for fun.” Before you know it, she’d gotten a huge freezer and set it up in the spare bedroom of her dad’s rent house.
She then attended Kitchen 66 – the Lobeck Taylor Foundation’s program to train and help up-and-coming food businesses. She started selling ice cream sandwiches at football games, and later got a space at Mother Road Market. And then, just a few months ago, she and Brian opened their second location, the Sand Springs store. (The Mother Road stand remains open.)
A visit to either store promises pleasant surprises. You’ll always see the lavender and the butter cake, but there are seasonal and experimental flavors.
“I love to forage,” says Sami. “Every year, we make a wild sumac sorbet. Sometimes I make persimmon jam. The persimmons grow wild around Sand Springs, but you gotta get to them before the deer do.”
Lately she’s been featuring sweet potato with marshmallow ice cream, with the potatoes fresh from a farm. She’s also added butter roll ice cream, made with Macy’s Hawaiian dinner rolls, frosted with vanilla glaze and put into salted sweet cream. You’d think these flavors would taste, well, weird. But they don’t. They taste sweet, rich and good. Even seemingly ordinary flavors like vanilla are enriched with real vanilla beans from Madagascar.
“The beans from Tahiti are too sweet,” says Sami. “The Madagascar beans have a rich, smoky taste I love.”
Sami’s journey seems to have come full circle.
“I grew up in Sand Springs,” she says. “My dad owned the Crescent Cafe in Prattville, and I started working there at 14. I became friends with the regulars, they became like family to me, and some I even invited to our wedding. Crescent was a real community place. I want to do the same here. I want to make this the space that, no matter how much stress and pain is outside, gives you ten minutes of joy.”