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Happy Days

Coney Island's former specialty takes hold in the Midwest

In an otherwise dull-looking neighborhood in southern Milwaukee, Leon's explodes with neon. There's an American flag, a spotted dog running away with a string of wieners in its mouth, and a glowing ice cream cone raised up to heaven like an offering to the gods. The parking lot is a madhouse of idling cars parked every which way as patrons hasten to line up for cones at multiple windows, then consume them sitting on their hoods, perched on curbs, or just standing and ogling the summer-evening spectacle. This drive-in doesn't provide benches or tables for the comfort of its adoring patrons, and it doesn't need to—since 1942, Leon's has been churning out the world's greatest frozen custard.

Frozen custard was invented in 1919 in Coney Island, when a vendor named Archie C. Kohr realized that the addition of egg yolks to regular ice cream improved its texture and kept it from melting as quickly. Supposedly, he sold 18,460 cones in the first weekend. Frozen custard was introduced to the Midwest 14 years later at the Chicago World's Fair, and from there readily made the short hop into the hearts of Milwaukeeans. The over-availability of cream and eggs was a spur to its taking hold there, and soon the city on the shores of Lake Michigan with brief sweet summers became America's custard capital. Still, making flawless frozen custard decade after decade is a daunting task, and even in Milwaukee only two custard stands can compete with Leon's: Gilles and Kopp's, both located in graceless modern premises on the west and north sides, respectively, while Leon's occupies an antique drive-in you would probably want to visit even if it didn't sell perfect custard.

What's so good about custard? At Leon's the silky product is made in a series of churns, visible through the front windows, one for each flavor currently being featured. These monstrous metallic contraptions—known to custard fans as "iron lungs"—extrude the product into a bucket, from whence it's scooped by blue-uniformed attendants into your cup or wafer cone, the public overwhelmingly preferring the cone. Unlike regular ice cream, no air has been whipped into the product, so even a two-scoop cone ($1.35) feels heavy in the hand. The vanilla custard is cream colored and infinitely smooth, soothing the tongue without being cloying. It's so rich, I can barely finish a two-scooper.

Custard's last stand
photo: Robert Sietsema
Custard's last stand

On a recent four-day trip to Milwaukee, I was unable to resist visiting Leon's five times, during which the featured flavors were vanilla, chocolate, and butter pecan. Sometimes you can also get raspberry, strawberry, maple nut, and mint. The menu also boasts of its sandwiches, though only three are available: a hot dog, a hot dog with chili, and a hamburger ($1.30), described as "our own Spanish." Not sure what that phrase means, but I'd call it a sloppy joe. Leon's was the inspiration for Arnold's frozen custard drive-in Happy Days.

Happily, frozen custard still flourishes in New York, where it was invented. You can get frozen custard nearly the equal of Leon's at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. What you're going to miss is that eye-searing neon and the throngs of working-class Wisconsinites who line up with obvious enthusiasm after sunset.

 
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