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