Monday, July 03, 2017

Celebrating Milwaukee as America's Frozen Custard Capital

July is National Ice Cream month, the result of a congressional resolution passed in 1984 and first proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan on July 9 of that year.  (For what it's worth, July 15 is National Ice Cream Day, per the same resolution and proclamation.)

Just in time for 31 days of gooey goodness, author Amy Ettinger has published Sweet Spot:  An Ice Cream Binge Across America.  She discussed her book last week on the public radio show, Marketplace, with host Kai Ryssdal, and talked specifically about frozen custard, a delicacy almost unique to Milwaukee.

Ryssdal: New York's a tough city, we all know that. A detour now though to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and custard. So first of all, is custard ice cream? And if not, what's it doing in an ice cream book?

Gilles frozen custard Milwaukee
Ettinger: I always think of it as sort of a delicious cousin to ice cream. It's very, very similar, obviously. It's a little eggier. And you're not going to find good custard in the supermarket grocery aisle. We live in this age where almost anything can be delivered to you at any moment of the day, and frozen custard cannot.

Ryssdal: Why did you have to go to Milwaukee to get what you deem genuine custard?

Ettinger: It is considered the custard capital of the world, and there is very good frozen custard in other parts of the country.

Ryssdal: Yeah, because we're going to get letters here about custard. The custard fans out there, I'm going to hear from them.

Ettinger: Absolutely! But there is a very large concentration of custard stands that are owned by different families in Milwaukee, so I felt like that would be a way for me to test the different custards and really see what all the fuss is about.

Echoing Ettinger inn the introduction to their book Milwaukee Frozen Custard, (or perhaps she echoes them), Kathleen McCann and Robert Tanzilo write:
Milwaukee is known as Brew City thanks to its once-prominent beer-brewing tradition, but the city has another claim to fame: frozen custard capital of the world.

Here, names like Leon, Gilles, Kopp and Culver are as well known as Miller, Best, Blatz, Pabst and Schlitz. And often they conjure deeper memories and stronger opinions than their beer-brewing counterparts. And while beer-drinking culture is reserved for adults, Milwaukeeans of all ages indulge in the passion for custard.

McCann and Tanzilo ask why Milwaukee became custard central.
Numerous ideas have been floated over the years as contributors to the "perfect storm" for frozen custard's adoption here, among them Wisconsin's dairy tradition, access to fresh cream and the proximity of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Dairy School, believed to be the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere when it began offering dairy foods courses in 1890.
As a libertarian, I was rather taken by this explanation from some of the descendants of the early custard purveyors in and around Milwaukee, which attributes the success to the competition to cooperate and the cooperation to compete:
Leon Schneider, of the eponymous Leon's Frozen Custard, also worked as a custard machine salesman and, later, manufacturer and repairman.

Schneider's son Ron, who now runs Leon's, attributes the city's passion for custard to something else, something that can never be replicated: the synergistic results of numerous stand owners who had strong work ethics, a laser-pointed attention to quality that raised the bar to an incredibly high standard and the generosity to share their passion. He explains:

Leon's Frozen Custard Drive-in Milwaukee
Between Joe Clark [who opened the first custard stand in Milwaukee], who wanted to do a good job; Paul Gilles [Gilles founder], who also wanted to do a good job. My father, Leon Schneider, taught many people about the custard business: Elsa Kopp, [founder of Kopp's], for one, Al Lach [who started Al's Drive-In], the Town Pride stores, the owner of Trudy's.

He would welcome the competition. He felt that the more people who did a good job with the product, the more the product would become known. This would help us. A bad store down the block does us no good, because if at the first place the customer stops to try frozen custard, he eats lousy product, when he's driving by here, he's not going to stop. They say, "What's the big deal? It wasn't any good." We had more frozen custard stands in this area, geographically, than anywhere else. [But] why I firmly believe this area became the custard capital, if you will, is because there was good product; there was more of it than anywhere else.

Karl Kopp, who owns two of the most popular stands in the area, thinks Schneider might be correct. "Maybe it's the fact that we have a lot of good ones," he muses. "They didn't dilute it. They kept it. I think that's what kept it going here. Guys were pure and didn't bastardize it."
(Tanzilo takes that explanation a few steps forward in an interview on WUWM-FM's Bubbler Talk.)

Frozen custard, like frozen yogurt, can be found on the East Coast, of course. Take Kohr Brothers, a popular frozen custard stand in Rehoboth Beach and other oceanside resorts, for instance. But it's hard to find authentic, Wisconsin-style frozen custard that evokes the childhood memories of Gilles or Leon's or Milky Way (inspiration for Arnold's drive-in on the 1970s TV hit, Happy Days).

One exception -- perhaps the only exception -- is the Dairy Godmother in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, near Washington, D.C.  The store was founded by Wisconsin native Liz Davis, daughter of former Ninth District Congressman Glenn Davis (R-Wisconsin), from the days when Wisconsin had nine congressional districts.  In its decade and a half-plus in business, the Dairy Godmother has been visited by VIPs like former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson and former U.S. President Barack Obama and his family.

In an interview with The Washington Post's John Kelly, Davis, in announcing her retirement, explained how the Dairy Godmother came to be:

“If you ask anybody that you meet, they’re able to tell you what ice cream or frozen custard place they went to as a kid and exactly what the scenario was,” Liz said. “They’ll say, ‘My teacher took me’ or ‘My grandparents took me.’ Or, ‘We got to go when we got good grades’ or ‘I went there as a first date.’ It’s the most nostalgic of businesses.”

* * *

“For me, I lived here long enough that there wasn’t any going back to Wisconsin,” she said. “Instead of just wishing I lived in Wisconsin, but knowing that wasn’t going to happen, I decided to bring Wisconsin to me.”

And to her customers. Liz invested in a $70,000 frozen custard machine from Kiel, Wis., perfected her art and watched Del Ray gentrify around her.

“One of the things about Del Ray isn’t just that it has independent businesses, but that the owner is on site,” Liz said. “If you went in there you would see the owner, which is another level of independent business, in my opinion. My customers are used to seeing me. After a while, to be honest, I did start thinking I was the Dairy Godmother.”
Despite Davis's decision to sell the Dairy Godmother, it is not closing.  Local restaurateur and chef Russell Gravatt has bought the place and plans to continue operating it under the same standards.

One of those standards has to be favoring the eating of the frozen custard on premises.  It loses its flavor if it travels too far from the source.  Bill Klein, manager of the Babcock Dairy Plant at UW-Madison, told Mitch Teich of public radio station WUWM, "says that when it comes to eating custard or ice cream, the fresh stuff is always better. But why?"

The short answer: ice crystals. "So when you think of soft serve coming out of the machine, it's got X amount of ice crystals in it and those ice crystals are a certain length in size. The quality of that ice cream at that point - whether it's soft serve or not - the quality of that ice cream is at its best. It only goes downhill from there," Klein explains.

The longer ice cream or custard sits around, the longer the ice crystals get, which alters the way it tastes. "The key is to keep those things as small as possible and that's what makes it really smooth and creamy feeling," says Klein.
As tempting as it might be to buy a pint (or a quart) to take home, Klein explained, leaving it in the freezer for too long "will cause the quality to degrade."

Lesson learned: fresh but frozen, not frozen and refrozen.