Just back from my favorite local ice cream joint...Ray's Dairy Diner in Fairfax. On tonight's menu: a small Heath Bulldog, generously studded with chunks of Heath bar and gently flowing out of the spoon hole over the side of the Styrofoam cup. Ice cream for supper is a summer ritual with no one around to judge the shape of our food pyramid.
What do I love about ice cream? Well, obviously, I relish the stuff itself. There is nothing wrong with a dish of Breyer's before bedtime, or a sinfully rich scoop in a crystalline footed dish. But as much as I love the food quality of ice cream, I love the romantic notion of ice cream, the associations, the memories, the "remembrance of things past".
I grew up when chain restaurants were in their infancy. Our town sprouted a Dog 'n Suds across from the little gas station we patronized. You still see an occasional Dog 'n Suds building, usually in the guise of a used lot; they're hard to mistake with their distinctive v-shaped awnings. We didn't eat out much; to tell the truth, I don't know that we ever ate anywhere but our dining room in Orland Park. So I cannot speak with authority on the ice cream at a Dog 'n Suds.
That doesn't mean we didn't avail ourselves of root beer and root beer floats. Outside of Louisiana, Missouri we'd occasionally stop at the A&W Root Beer drive-in for a refreshing brew. This was a good thing in a myriad of ways. First of all, someone came up to your window and took your order. The root beers came in all sizes, from Papa Bear to cunning little mugs just for kids. The mugs had a perfect rime of foam on the rim and were thickly coated with frost in the constant summer humidity. I loved the way the trays hung on our car windows and the spongy rubber mat that cushioned the trip of the mugs to our door.
Jefferson City had its own marvelous ice cream emporium. I didn't eat much ice cream at Central Dairy until I was a teen. Then it was a tough decision whether to opt for a Jamoca Almond Fudge cone or a strawberry shake with chunks of fruit large enough to plug your straw. The counter stools were round, vinyl topped and swiveled. The flavors were crammed on two boards on the wall. The booths were simple bare boards and the flooring vintage linoleum in checkerboard red and white. The whole place gave me the impression of being part of the time warp that kept parts of Jeff City comfortably in the past. The overwhelming sensation of Central Dairy was that of chill. The ice cream was just warm enough to detect flavor and the ambient temperature of the fountain, maybe a degree or two higher. Stepping out into the street made was a physical shock and my glasses fog over.
For many years, my folks hosted a family get together at Redbarn given the handle of the "Pigout" around July 4th. Needless to say, pork in several manifestations provided the entree but dessert was invariably a birthday cake for Annie and homemade ice cream. This continued the tradition begun at Granny and Grandpa's 4th of July celebrations. The homemade ice cream was a joint collaboration between the men and women. My mother, or Granny, would mix up the magical ice cream concoction. The men's job was to chip the ice block in an old washtub and pack the ice and rock salt around the metal cylinder. Then it was time to churn, and jaw, and pour salt and pack more ice and tell more stories and crank....you get the picture. We kids would snitch ice chips or maybe even take turns with the ice pick. We'd hang around and offer to crank awhile. But even when we were old enough to be helpful, we were as invisible to the guys making the ice cream as we were to those same guys turning the pork steaks over the glowing coals on the sheet of tin. It was ritual. It was tradition. The ice cream came out cold and crystalline, either ur-vanilla or the essence of peach flash frozen right off the tree.
Its been awhile since I rode with Blake hauling grain to Atchison in the summertime. It wasn't a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon but it was a way to spend time together. The truck lacked air conditioning so we rode down with the motor roaring and the gears laboring up the hills into St. Joe. Conversation was impossible so I looked out the window at the sweltering fields. The atmosphere grew tense as we crossed the bridge into Atchison. Would we or would we not catch the green light on the other side. Would Blake have to labor mightily to bring the creaking load of grain to a screeching halt. Would the clutch hold when we did and had to start up again.
But there was compensation and a treat after we left at the elevator. On our way out of town, we could sneak the 10 wheeler into the parking lot at the DQ and get a giant iced tea and a shake or Blizzard. Somewhere in this time frame, Dairy Queen created the Cappuccino Heath Blizzard and it has remained my favorite ever since. The truck was lighter and quieter on the way home and the riders cooler thanks to DQ.
And what discussion of ice cream would be complete without mention of Ted Drewes'? Our summer trips to St. Louis have always been joyful events, whether we get to a Cards game, or the Garden, or golf, or eat on the Hill, or partake of Mark's culinary expertise. I rest my case on the myriad pleasures of summer in St. Louis and a visit to Pernod Gardens. Not the least of these is a pleasant evening stroll down the neighborhood streets to the bright lights and commotion of Ted Drewes' on Chippewa. There is constant traffic entering and leaving the parking lot and a long congenial line at the windows. Most people stand and eat their concretes or sundaes before driving off, but we are pedestrians and find a comfortable curb or window ledge to eat our treat. What do I eat at Ted Drewes? I haven't the faintest idea! It's all good, but its more than food...it's community, it's tradition, it's common ground.
Back to the Dairy Diner. Ice cream at the Dairy Diner is another lovely tasty proxy for summer. The building is square and old, but the picnic tables outside are a great place to watch what happens in rural Missouri in the summer. On the east side is a big pop machine. The fluorescent bug lights are yellow and flyspecked. I wonder while I wait for my Bulldog how long it has been since the individual light sockets drew moths to their tempting halos. The Dairy Diner is and is not a charming anachronism in a chain store world. We are regulars there and they apologize to Lee for making her previous Bulldog with vanilla ice cream. The sign is freshly painted for the season with Bulldog green. Its only June; we hope there are many more ice cream reminiscences in the summer ahead.