Frozen custard is a Wisconsin treat

Remember Arnold’s, the hangout for Richie Cunningham and his pals in the 1970s era show Happy Days?

Even if you do, unless you were from Milwaukee – fictional home of Richie, Potsie and The Fonz – you may have missed the fact that Arnold’s was a frozen custard stand.

Wisconsinites may be known for their cheese, but a love of frozen custard is the secret handshake that means you’ve run into kin. A mixture of milk or cream, sugar and egg yolks, frozen custard is usually made to order using a specially designed machine that freezes without adding a lot of air, resulting in a dense, creamy frozen dessert. Regular old ice cream contains a smaller percentage of egg yolks, and can sometimes be as much as 50 percent air.

Frozen custard was created in 1919 at Coney Island, when vendors Archie and Elton Kohr discovered that adding more egg yolk to their ice cream kept it soft and creamy. The story goes that they sold 18,460 cones that first weekend for 5 cents each (that’s $923 in 1919, when the average yearly income was about $1,500). In 1933, frozen custard was served at the World’s Fair in Chicago and Midwesterners fell in love.

Because of the special production process, frozen custard – real frozen custard, not soft-serve ice cream – is practically untransportable.

Unless you bring the machine. Liz Davis, a Waukesha, Wis., native who has spent the last few decades in Alexandria, Va., did just that. At her shop The Dairy Godmother, Davis churns out cone after cone of thick, creamy vanilla, chocolate and special daily flavors such as tin roof, Florida lime and Bordeaux cherry.

Frozen custard can still be found in beach communities up and down the East Coast and even at some hamburger chains. But in and around Milwaukee, custard stands such as Leon’s, Gilles and Kopp’s are still a way of life.

— Text by Michele Kayal 

— AFR video by Carol Hallowell


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6 Responses to Frozen custard is a Wisconsin treat

  1. Carol Guensburg June 7, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

    Liz, thanks for bringing that frozen-custard tradition to northern Virginia and delivering a welcome taste of home. What you didn’t say, and I will, is that your custard flavors are rich and imaginative. So are the sorbets — and the pastries. Killer stuff, all.

  2. Profile photo of Eddie Ribo
    Eddie Ribo June 11, 2013 at 7:39 am #

    what a treat! Never knew why the frozen custard at the Seaside Heights NJ Boardwalk was so delicious! And who knew it had less fat than ice cream. So interesting. I love the texture of frozen yogurt, thick and creamy. Nice to now know the history behind it.

  3. Ellen Abrams Blankenship June 12, 2013 at 12:19 am #

    Having grown up in Milwaukee, I can attest to the high quality of the custard! (And the caloric content! As I age, it becomes less of a regular indulgence and more of a sometime thing or a vacation thing. Too many laps in the pool needed to work it all off!) It is a continual rivalry between Leon’s and Kopp’s! Both are like eating cold melted baked custard. Yum! The best way to judge the quality is to eat the vanilla, where the taste of the egg comes through, unmasked by chocolate or other flavors, good though they are! And everywhere in Wisconsin are ice cream and custard places, but none compare to these two, in my humble opinion. Not Licked Yet in Fish Creek (Door County) is pretty good, though! As for Happy Days, the creator of that went to high school here with my older brother, and everyone in that class is sure that he based the Fonz on him! No proof, but a cool thought.

  4. Profile photo of Scott Vance
    Scott Vance June 12, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    What a nice video. I so admire Liz Davis and the care she takes in preserving and building on tradition.

  5. Bart Gach June 4, 2015 at 11:31 am #

    We need Frozen Custard in and around San Jose (Silicon Vally). We have more money in Silicon Vally then people know what to do with it. Please give them something to spend it on!


  1. School’s Out for Summer! | The Dairy Godmother - June 13, 2013

    […] Liz was featured on the American Food Roots project! The editors ask “Why do we eat what we eat?” and Liz told them all about the history and the magic of Frozen Custard. Check out her interview here. […]