Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
It all started with some good eggs and a sweet tooth.
Denny Moore, the 65-year-old co-owner of Scooter’s Frozen Custard in Chicago, vividly recalls annual childhood sojourns out to Des Plaines to visit his grandparents each summer. “We’d go into town, get ice cream cones, and sit on a bench in a train station and watch the trains go by,” says Moore. “Big, black locomotives with black smoke coming out of the chimney. It was like the end of the world when we went by, it was so loud and crazy. It’s my single favorite memory with my grandfather.”
Now, Moore says that he’s “in the memory business” himself. He’s convinced that everyone remembers their first sample of custard. He has a strong sense memory of his own. “I can’t tell you for sure what the name of the shop was, but I can visualize it,” he says. “I can taste it.”
Cultural lore holds that frozen custard was invented in Coney Island, Brooklyn, in 1919. (Sweet and savory custards predate this by many centuries.) Allegedly, boardwalk promenaders gravitated to the silky treat right away: The Village Voice reports that the vendor sold 18,460 cones in the first weekend. Custard wasn’t a boardwalk novelty for long. The treat made its way to Chicago for the World’s Fair in 1933, where it was quickly adopted as a regional specialty.
In their 2013 book, The Flavor of Wisconsin: An Informal History of Food and Eating in the Badger State, the food writers Harva Hachten and Terese Allen credited custard’s local popularity to the region’s “vibrant ice-harvesting industry and easy access to fresh cream from nearby dairy farms.” (Bolstered by these natural resources, hard ice cream was already popular throughout the region before the World’s Fair, with recipes appearing in local newspapers as early as the 1890s, reports Edible Milwaukee.) Agriculture is still a major industry across the Midwest, though farmers have faced a slew of struggles as children have divested themselves of family farms; other farms have been folded into big businesses. A 2013 report from the USDA tallied the state’s 76,800 farms spread across 15 million acres of land.
One-off, old-school stands still draw crowds across Wisconsin, as do chains, such as Culver’s. Rhapsodizing about custard in a 2005 story for the Village Voice, the food critic Robert Sietsema painted a picture of the after-dinner scene at Leon’s, a Milwaukee counter ablaze with neon lights, and admitted that he visited the stand five times during a four-day trip. I get that impulse.
Growing up in Michigan, I associated custard with balmy summer evenings, too. On a stretch of Woodward Avenue in the Detroit suburbs, summer is synonymous with ice cream shacks. The 5-mile strip between the neighborhoods of Royal Oak and Birmingham is home to three frozen dairy counters. You choose a favorite and pledge unwavering, umelting fealty. (That’s my beloved Custard & Co. in the picture above.)
Parking spaces are scarce. Cars idle in front of the plastic awnings and send a delegate to the window, tasked with ordering as many swirled wafer cones as they can carry. The sidewalks are pocked with creamy puddles and the colorful dust of smashed rainbow sprinkles. Come August, as the Woodward Dream Cruise lures classic car enthusiasts to the Motor City, people prop up folding chairs and work on concretes or cones while watching souped-up Thunderbirds or Camaros sputter or purr down the main drag. When I left the Midwest, I was sad to discover that I couldn’t a satisfying replacement for my beloved strawberry-caramel sundae. Nothing tasted as good.
Eggs are the key ingredient that distinguishes ice cream from real-deal custard. “As soon as you add egg to the dairy, you’re making custard,” says Moore. The FDA has set forth guidelines mandating minimum contents for egg yolk and butterfat. Scooter’s uses 10 percent butterfat, and introduces 20 percent overrun—the amount of air that’s whipped into the product. At Scooter’s, every gallon of liquid mix ultimately yields 1.2 gallons of frozen custard. Moore says that soft serve ice cream, on the other hand, has much more air—a single gallon of liquid mix might end up creating 1.5 gallons of prepared product.
The nostalgia conjured by the buzzing lights and classic flavors (“no kid has ever come into my store and asked for tomato-basil custard,” Moore says) is perhaps more pronounced by virtue of custard being a limited-time offer. Many shops are seasonal operations, closing up for the winter and reopening after the thaw. At Scooter’s, closing day—the second Friday after Thanksgiving—is a free-for-all. “We sell more pints and quarts than any other time during the year,” Moore says. “In December, we’re as busy as we are over July 4th weekend. We stay open that last day until we’ve run out of product. We literally sell the last lick of custard in the shop.”
What makes one place more delicious than another is a fiercely guarded secret. Moore was reluctant to tell me where he buys his custard mix, but he dropped a few hints. He says the dairy comes from cows in central Wisconsin, and that Scooter’s worked with the supplier to develop a proprietary recipe. Before they add flavors, he says, the mix “tastes a lot like sweetened whipped cream before you whip it.” He didn’t want to dish out any specifics. “In the frozen custard business, we’re all like Kentucky Fried Chicken,” he says. “None of us want to tell you the real secrets.”
In recent years, especially, the custard footprint has spread beyond the Midwest. Moore says that some dairies ship internationally (his suppliers, he adds, provide mix to a shop in Taiwan). Custard has also reached the status of trendy cuisine, thanks in part to the popularity of Shake Shack, which stocks the egg-y stuff instead of ice cream. The chain now has outposts in 15 states and around the world, scattered across countries including Kuwait, Japan, Turkey, and Russia.
But even Shake Shack owes a debt to Midwestern custard. The New York Times reported that Danny Meyer, the chain’s founder and a St. Louis native, frequented the local institution Ted Drewes, which has sold custard since the 1930s and often tops best-of lists. Ted Drewes is often credited as the birthplace of the concrete—custard churned with mix-ins—which also stars on the Shake Shack menu. (The Times added that Meyer had briefly considered naming his business Custard’s First Stand.)
Custard is probably delicious anywhere. But Midwestern loyalists might argue that it never tastes better than at a roadside stop on a warm summer night, just after sunset.