When I arrived at the Whitehall Township Public Library on Tuesday night, my car thermometer told me it was 98 degrees. This may or may not have been accurate, but it seemed close enough as I trudged inside to check out an event that promised, in the end, to deliver ice cream.
I am a reporter and blessed with keen powers of observation and deductive reasoning, so I immediately surmised that the man in the white lab coat and blue Kevlar gloves pouring liquid nitrogen into glass bowls and using it to freeze and shrink balloons was probably the man I had come to see.
And indeed it was. His name was Paul Soldridge, a salesman for Air Products who told me he volunteers as one of that distinguished company's LIN ambassadors.
"Liquid nitrogen ambassadors," Soldridge explained, as he turned another plump balloon into a brittle prune.
Not every company has liquid nitrogen ambassadors — mine does not — but not every company produces liquid nitrogen for use in industry, as Air Products does.
Among other things, chicken manufacturers use it to flash-freeze the chicken that arrives at your house in the form of cutlets and nuggets.
I'm certain it has many vital uses beyond that, but for the purposes of his show at the library, Soldridge and his able assistant — his wife, Melissa — showed a big crowd of wide-eyed children from the summer reading program how to freeze a banana so hard that it can hammer a nail into a board; how to freeze a hot dog so that it breaks into splinters; and how to use a little dash of liquid nitrogen to suck the oxygen out of a wooden box and douse the tower of tea candles burning within.
"Fire can't exist in a nitrogen atmosphere, just like you can't exist in a nitrogen atmosphere," Soldridge told the children.
Each of the demonstrations, accompanied by waves of witches' caldron steam as the nitrogen boiled on contact with the air, was met with a chorus of "ohs" and giggles.
"Is that hot ice?" one boy asked from the front row as a couple of the frozen balloons popped and shattered.
He may have meant dry ice. It was not. Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide, which registers at a mere minus 109.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Liquid nitrogen is far colder — minus 320 degrees. Touching it without protection would result in a human finger shattering as easily as the hot dog.
All of the demonstrations were mere prelude to the big event, which was the creation of instant ice cream. The Soldridges poured sugar, vanilla extract, heavy cream, half-and-half, liquid eggs and crumbled Oreo cookies into a big silver bowl.
"It's not a healthy version," Melissa cautioned.
She stirred while her husband added dash after dash of liquid nitrogen until the soupy mess solidified into ice cream, which was dispensed to the children in small plastic cups.
"It tastes awesome," 9-year-old Jake Wentzell told his mother, Irene, scraping the sides of the cup and finally abandoning the spoon in favor of his tongue to get the last molecule of the treat.
Lorraine Santaliz, the youth librarian who arranged the show, seemed eminently pleased at the turnout.
"We had close to 300 kids sign up for [the reading program] and there's a good amount here now," she said, noting that a lot of her teen assistants had shown up, too.
"Ice cream knows no age boundaries," I told her, and she laughed.
After the cookies and cream had vanished, the Soldridges made more, this time using orange soda to concoct a Creamsicle-flavored ice cream that glowed radioactively.
"This one has heavy cream and diet soda," Melissa said. "Like getting a double cheeseburger and fries and a diet Coke."