Soft Serve




It has been years. Decades, in fact. Yet my car zips into the drive-through without hesitation. Not even glancing at the menu, I order myself a cone. Vanilla, not enrobed in chocolate or busted up with nuts. No husband nearby to arch an eyebrow, no dog to insist on sharing. I skid into the Schnucks parking lot, roll down the window, and let my tongue glide slowly around the curve of cool white sweetness, the fattest part of it, just above that reliably chewy, soon soggy, weirdly peach-colored cone.

The kid did not make the squiggly little Dairy Queen curl at the top. So be it. Centering my face above the cone, I descend, enclose the narrowest part of the top scoop (is it really a scoop? more like a squish) in my mouth, and pull in a bite. Then I slowly spiral my tongue around the circumference again, changing direction a few times but unwilling to stop.

Soft-serve is a synthetic miracle. Satiny in texture, smoother than any smoothie. Cold white, with none of that buttery cast you find in fresh-churned ice cream. I take more of the soft-serve into my mouth and feel it melt against my overheated lips. My body temperature drops at least three degrees. I lick steadily, allowing no drips. The experience is extraordinary. My mind is focused, absorbed, totally engaged. If someone else were here with me, making idle chitchat, I might be able to nod or even muster an absent reply between licks. But my real attention will belong to this cone until it has vanished. Few experiences, in this distractible age, so concentrate the mind. There is a seriousness to the act, an intent—and yet it is languorous, promising complete ease. No ice cream headache. No chewing. No waiting for overfrozen, hard-scooped ice cream to soften. No agonizing over three hundred and twelve flavors. Just a simple vanilla cone, pure as sunshine.

A woman peers into the car window and smiles. “That looks awfully good!”

I nod, chuffed at my secret indulgence. “It is!”

No wonder so many Chinese restaurants added soft-serve to please all American customers. No wonder Dairy Queen has survived since 1940, when its first store opened in Joliet, Illinois. A cone cost a nickel then; a second cone cost a penny.

I was never interested in the fads that followed: the Dilly Bars and Buster Bars and Peanut Buster Parfaits. Nor did I care that in Texas, there is an entirely different brazier menu, “Texas Country Foods” (Texas being, indeed, another country). Keep your Dude (a chicken-fried steak sandwich). Keep your Blizzard, too, even though the DQ bestseller, which slides out the window by the billions, was arguably inspired by St. Louis’s own Ted Drewes concrete, all the way down to the schtick of triumphantly holding it upside down (and providing a freebie if any slides out).

Just give me my cone.

Those domestic differences feel trivial compared to the global phenomenon of International Dairy Queen. What did people in the Middle East think when the first soft-serve gushed forth in 1979? Did they even realize how sexy those cones were? Eye of the beholder, I chasten myself. As a kid, all they were was sweet and cold. Today, there are Dairy Queens in more than twenty countries. For a few glorious years, there were even more. The slick American fastness, the instant imported sugar rush, might have been too much for the Hungarians, who pulled out in the 1990s. And you will hardly be surprised to learn that there has never been a Dairy Queen in France. Paris has no need of this small pleasure. The world’s largest Dairy Queen, on the other hand, is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Though globalization has been patchy, the spread of such a brilliant concept was inevitable. Once individually owned stores, the DQ franchise went corporate, went international, and is now—I nearly choke—a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. Witness Warren Buffet’s famous instincts at work. The franchise’s capitalistic provenance gives me pause; a nice local frozen custard stand like Drewes requires less moral vigilance. But the cone itself (am I rationalizing?) is less evil than you might think. Only 220 calories and 5 percent butterfat, DQ’s soft-serve does not even qualify as ice cream, which must be at least 10 percent butterfat. Dairy Queen even tried a Breeze, made with non-fat, cholesterol-free yogurt. It was yanked from the stores ten sad years later, unable to approximate the magic—or the sense of wicked indulgence.

John Fremont McCullough came up with that classic combination in 1938 (if you accept the DQ narrative, which is rivaled by claims from Carvel). When McCullough and his son persuaded a pal to offer the recipe in his ice cream store, more than 1,600 cones sold in the first two hours. Together, the three men opened the Joliet Dairy Queen. That building is now a venerated landmark. The recipe is locked in a safe-deposit box.

Think of all the hot summer date nights, fireflies sparking above lucky convertibles with bench seats, a guy’s arm slung around his girl’s shoulders and a cone in his other hand. The squeals of excited kids ring through the decades. Dairy Queen might be small-town, unhip, déclassé, but it remains the essence of treat. (The marketers know this: “It’s a real treat” was briefly the DQ slogan, followed by “We treat you right” and “Hot Eats, Cool Treats.”)

Treats are important, especially the simple sort, attainable by all. Dairy Queen might not be kale, but it has brightened many a day. Its role in the nation’s social fabric inspired Larry McMurtry (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen), Robert Inman (Dairy Queen Days), Bob Greene (Dairy Queen Nights), and S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders, adapted for film by Francis Ford Coppola).

What would Walter Benjamin have made of the place? McMurtry uses the German literary critic, whose background seems so much denser and richer and more cerebral than his own, as a foil. Musing about life in a Texan small town, he wishes he could ask Benjamin, “What kind of stories arise in a place where nothing has ever happened?”

Human stories, uncontrived. Experiences lived and felt, rather than thought about. The relief of something soft and cool and utterly unsophisticated; something so sharable, it is part of both the past and the present, podunk towns and faraway cultures. A silly little cone can serve as a common denominator, a pass back to childhood, and gratification of the body’s simpler desires.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.