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Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009

Custard’s Last Stands

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There just doesn’t seem to be an end to Milwaukee’s awesome collection of unique commodities that unite us under a banner of civic pride. All of these things—our bubblers, our museums, our motorcycles, our beer— make up our identity; they’re a part of who we, as a city, are. One of the most beloved within our ranks, what some might consider the glue that holds us together, is custard… soft, rich, creamy custard.

Frozen custard was invented in 1919 in Coney Island, N.Y., when a vendor named Archie Kohr, along with his brothers Elton and Lester, discovered that the addition of egg yolks to their recipe for fresh ice cream improved its texture and kept it from melting too quickly in the salty air of the Atlantic shore. Incorporating the improved recipe with the use of a modified ice cream machine, the Kohrs created a light and silky frozen dessert that customers thought tasted just like a custard. Frozen custard was introduced to the Midwest 14 years later at the World’s Fair in Chicago. From there, custard made the short hop right into Milwaukee’s heart. Once here, the state’s bounty of cream and eggs made it a perfect, lasting fit.

Around this time, drive-in restaurants were sprouting out of America’s love of the automobile, and the speedy and mobile culture that surrounded it. The informality of eating in one’s car suited the country’s new on-the-move attitude. In the early days of the drive-in, menus were small and limited to food that was quick to prepare and serve, like hot dogs and hamburgers, but they also included regional specialties. In California, for instance, you would find tamales; on the East Coast, oysters; in the South, fried chicken. In Wisconsin, it was custard.

By the mid-1960s, the city traffic that drive-ins depended on for business was appropriated by our highly developed freeway system. It was the rise of the fast-food nation that finally eclipsed the old-school drive-in. In Milwaukee, three custard stands won the survival of the fittest as their brethren fell to the wrecking ball. Established by Paul Gilles in 1938, Gilles Frozen Custard on Bluemound Road is Milwaukee’s oldest custard stand. A custard machine repairman named Leon Schneider opened his drive-in at the corner of 27th Street and Oklahoma Avenue in 1942. On top of the roof of this Milwaukee landmark is a large neon sign announcing the restaurant’s name: Leon’s. Underneath the overhang, banks of fluorescent lights illuminate the outside as customers stand in line for Leon’s three regular flavors of custard: vanilla, chocolate and butter pecan. It’s rumored that Leon’s was the inspiration for Arnold’s drive-in on “Happy Days.” It was with some support from Leon Schneider that German immigrant Elsa Kopp opened the first Kopp’s frozen custard stand on Appleton Avenue in 1950. Elsa sparked a revolution in the industry when she began offering special, new flavors referred to as the “flavor of the day.”

We can thank these three custard stands, and their undyingly loyal Milwaukee customers, for weathering the volatile climate of the changing restaurant industry and keeping custard where it belongs.

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Photo by Dave Zylstra