HALIFAX — The lore in the Hart household was as rich as the ice cream served every day.
After joining his family's creamery business, the story goes, Bruce Hart travelled from Nova Scotia to the U.S. to attend 'Ice Cream University.'
The dates and places are foggy — as often happens with family history passed down through generations — but it was sometime before or after he served during the Second World War and likely took place at what's now the University of Massachusetts, a school with strong roots in agriculture and food science.
It was there, legend has it, that a young Bruce Hart had the audacity to swirl three ice cream flavours together: banana, grape and blue raspberry.
He called it Moon Mist, a lush ice cream flavour with colourful ripples of yellow, purple and blue.
"My grandfather told us he got to experiment with flavour mixtures, and that's how those improbable flavours came together that some people love and some may find disgusting," said Peter O'Brien, grandson of the late Bruce Hart.
"It was always part of family lore that my grandfather invented Moon Mist."
By the mid 1970s, the specialty flavour was catching on. The exact flavour combination of Moon Mist shifted over the years, with a popular local dairy swapping out blue raspberry for blue bubble gum in its recipe.
Yet regardless of the flavours of the tricolour swirls, Moon Mist ice cream would come to be celebrated as Atlantic Canada's favourite ice cream.
To some, it's a heavenly trilogy of tastes, while to others it's an odd mash-up of cloyingly sweet flavours. But it's defended by many as the region's unofficial frozen treat.
Moon Mist has become a symbol of the East Coast's uniqueness in Canada, a cultural marker of sorts for the region.
Ice cream stands and corner stores across the Maritimes scoop out Moon Mist all year long. Many say they go through several 11.5-litre vats on a summer weekend, leaving children in tears and adults in a huff if they sell out.
It evokes both nostalgia and pride, making a cameo on the Nova Scotia-based TV show "Trailer Park Boys." A local distillery sells a limited edition Moon Mist vodka and folk artists have sought inspiration from the flavour.
"If you've ever had a scoop of Moon Mist ice cream, you know it just has a very unique flavour and iconic aroma," said Rae Ryan, a Truro, N.S.-based research and development specialist with dairy giant Agropur, which acquired Nova Scotia's Scotsburn dairy in 2017.
"I think it's so popular because people in Atlantic Canada grew up with it in the 1980s and are now serving it to their kids. It's had a lot of staying power."
Bruce Hart returned from his ice cream training — and purported invention of Moon Mist — and got to work for the family business, Halifax Creamery Ltd.
The company soon after began making the blend of banana, grape and blue raspberry under its Polar Ice Cream brand.
Hart's grandson Peter O'Brien, now a 54-year-old classics professor, recalls ordering scoops of Moon Mist at local ice cream parlours as a child.
"My grandfather was big into ice cream, he ate it every day, probably twice a day," O'Brien said.
"We would go over for lunch or dinner and eat ice cream for dessert and often the conversation would return to his days in the business and how Moon Mist was created," he said.
The family business was eventually sold to Twin Cities Co-op Dairy Ltd., which later became Farmer’s Dairy Co-op Ltd., though the family stayed active in the industry for a few years after that.
It's around this time that a competitor came to town.
For more than a century, one of the largest dairies in the Maritimes was based out of Scotsburn, a village surrounded by sprawling dairy farms on Nova Scotia's north shore.
Sometime before the early 1980s, the Moon Mist flavour was likely introduced to Scotsburn by a so-called flavour house, said Jennifer MacLennan, the former marketing co-ordinator with Scotsburn dairy from 1993 until Agropur took over in 2017.
Flavour houses are companies with commercial food labs that develop, manufacture and supply flavours to various industries. The concentrated natural and artificial flavours can be used in everything from ice cream to gum. One of these companies likely promoted Moon Mist as part of a portfolio of new flavours presented to dairies, MacLennan said.
"It was probably introduced to several dairies as an up-and-coming flavour," she said. "Scotsburn decided to try it ... it may have started as a limited-edition flavour but clearly became a favourite."
Exactly why it became a top seller in Atlantic Canada while dairies in other parts of the country seem to have mostly passed it over is unclear.
Some smaller outfits across Canada offer Moon Mist, including Kawartha Dairy Ltd. based in Bobcaygeon, Ont., which markets it as an "out of this world" East Coast favourite. The Big Scoop in Duncan, B.C., also sells Moon Mist with a twist: bubble gum, banana and grape with a cherry ribbon.
But other than a few smaller dairies, Moon Mist ice cream largely seems to be an Atlantic Canadian phenomenon.
"A lot of flavours can be regional," MacLennan said. "In New Brunswick, grape nut ice cream was a big seller, but it wasn't as popular in other areas, like Cape Breton.”
When Moon Mist was introduced, many of the popular flavours were classics like vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, she said.
"Back in the '80s, a lot of the popular ice cream is what you might hear people call 'old people's flavours' nowadays," MacLennan said. "So when Moon Mist came out it was likely a huge hit with kids."
For decades, Moon Mist was only sold in 11.4-litre tubs to ice cream parlours. But in 2015, Scotsburn began selling smaller sizes in retail stores.
"I remember urging our marketing department to sell Moon Mist in the 1.5-litre packages in retail stores," MacLennan said. "It was always a bestseller so it made sense to have it available year round."
While Bruce Hart may have invented the original Moon Mist — and potentially the recipe later used by Farmers — Scotsburn's would become the favourite of many.
But not all.
A petition launched in the spring of 2020 called on Farmers to bring their version of Moon Mist, with blue raspberry rather than bubble gum, back to Nova Scotia.
The recipe change can be traced back to 2013, when Halifax-based Farmers Co-operative Dairy and Agropur Cooperative of Longueuil, Que., merged.
Four years later, Agropur purchased Scotsburn's frozen ice cream and frozen novelties business.
With two Moon Mist flavours in house, Agropur made the decision to phase out the Farmers recipe.
Agropur spokesman Guillaume Bérubé said sales volumes of both Scotsburn and Farmers Moon Mist tubs were "almost identical" at the time, but Scotsburn had the advantage of also having the smaller retail-sized format.
In terms of which recipe was oldest, Farmers may have launched Moon Mist first. While Scotsburn traces Moon Mist back to "before the early 1980s," Bérubé said company's archives show Farmers launched Moon Mist in 1973.
Regardless, the Farmers recipe — possibly inspired by Bruce Hart's original creation — was phased out by Agropur in 2017, permanently replacing blue raspberry with blue bubble gum, a subtle but notable change among some Moon Mist connoisseurs.
Agropur now says Moon Mist sales are second only to vanilla in the Scotsburn ice cream portfolio. It's sold in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island.
"A lot of people growing up in Nova Scotia either went to school with someone who was a dairy farmer or had some connection to the dairy industry, and ice cream is just really popular here," said Agropur's Ryan. "It's part of the culture. We have a lot of scooping stands in the region and the colour combo of Moon Mist is very recognizable.
"It's always been popular, but there's been a lot of buzz about it over the last couple years," she said.
"It's a happy story."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 13, 2023.
Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press