The Ideal Dairy, Highway 577, Menominee, Mich.
If I try to imagine what heaven is like, I get a picture of winding gold-paved streets lined on both sides with gigantic self-serve ice cream stands. There’s every conceivable flavor, from mocha bean to maraschino cherries in peanut butter; gallons of toppings; and an endless supply of whipped cream, peanuts, bananas, and M&M’s. Nobody watches over you, and it’s all free. You can eat as much as you want. I guess that vision means that there’s hardly anything that’s as pleasurable as ice cream. That feeling is undoubtedly due to my family history. My dad was born in Marinette, Wisc., so we children were born with DNA from the Dairy State. We ate lots of cheese in our house, my parents’ favorite being Steve’s Cheese from Denmark, Wisc. Katja and I still buy a couple of bricks of Steve’s Cheese every time we pass through the Green Bay airport. As kids we guzzled down big glasses of milk whenever we were thirsty. Every couple of days the Ideal Dairy delivery man pulled into our driveway, picked up the metal rack of empty milk bottles from the utility room, and left a half dozen new quarts. Each bottle had an inch of thick cream at the top, and you needed to shake it well to get the milk and cream mixed together. The motto on the Ideal bottle read, “For Mothers Who Care.” We youth would question our mother about whether that was really true, and she would simply smile.
The Ideal Dairy was up the road from us on Highway 577, right at the city limits. It was good for milk, but it was sensational for ice cream. My father would bundle the family into our car and take us to the Idol, as he called it. They would have about twenty flavors on hand – the conventional ones, e.g., vanilla, chocolate, strawberry – plus numerous specials of the week. My favorite was Lemon Flake. I still salivate when I think about it. Since I left Menominee in the mid-1950’s I’ve never seen anything that comes close to the Ideal Dairy’s Lemon Flake. Their ice cream cones cost two dips for a nickel, and we were allowed to get four dips as long as we could eat it all. When I became a teenager I’d ride my bike home from school past the Ideal, buy six dips of Lemon Flake, and balance the whole thing while I rode home steering the bike with my left hand and eating my cone with my right. My dad always observed that ice cream was a dairy product and hence one of the healthiest things you could put into your body.
At home we frequently had ice cream for dessert. Vic would ask ahead of time what we wanted him to pick up at the grocery store, and we always wanted Sealtest Neopolitan since you got chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla all in one. As the oldest child, I had the task of dividing up a pint for the four children. Vicki and Peter were the youngest, so I’d split off a third of the pint and divide it in half for them. Family rules then called for me to split the remaining ice cream into two parts and give my younger brother Steven first choice between the pieces. You never saw such precise cutting. It was usually impossible to tell which slice was larger, but, if I made a slight mistake, there would be a lot of hooting and hollering. One time I took our two-thirds of the pint and split it into two drastically unequal parts, e.g., 80% and 20%. Steven was taken aback and didn’t know what to do. He sat and looked at it for quite a while, laughed nervously, and finally took the 20% piece for himself and gave me, his older brother, 80%. I felt a twinge of guilt, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment.
Our most thrilling family ice cream outings would occur when my dad would take us all to town to my Uncle Kent’s Menominee drug store after hours. Vic had a key to the front door, and we’d all go in and run to the soda fountain. We were allowed to be totally in charge of making our own ice cream sundaes. The only rule was that we had to eat everything we made for ourselves. My typical sundae would have six or seven different scoops of ice cream with multiple toppings, e.g., chocolate, butterscotch, raspberry, strawberry, pineapple, peach, caramel. Sometimes I’d bring along a ripe banana to turn it all into a gigantic banana split with whipped cream topping and nuts. In my entire life I can’t think of anything as exciting as being let loose in the soda fountain. This is probably where my fantasies about heaven come from.
Softserve ice cream was invented when I was a teenager, but it was viewed with disdain in our dairy-oriented culture. It might have actually been banned in Wisconsin. It was definitely the case that margarine was illegal in our sister state. As a consequence, some enterprising soul opened up a Margarine Store at the foot of the Interstate Bridge in Menominee so migrants from Wisconsin could cross the bridge and buy the forbidden substance. Even in Michigan the margarine was legally required to be white rather than yellow to avoid any suggestion it might be equivalent to butter. There were no softserve stores in Marinette. Our local Menominee softserve shop was on Ogden Avenue, five or six blocks down the street from the Interstate Bridge. It’s still there, some sixty years later. As a teenager I’d ride in from river house on my bicycle, looking to see if there were any girls to talk to on Ogden Ave. and wind up buying a softserve cone. On the way back home I’d have to pass Riverside Cemetery on a moonlit night, and I’d pedal as fast as I could. I still can visually recall the terrifying scene.
In college Katja asked me to teach her how to drive. I tried riding with her once as her teacher, but I couldn’t stand it emotionally. Instead I gave her the keys to my car with its automatic transmission, and she drove by herself four blocks straight down Yellow Springs Avenue to the Dairy Queen stand. She’d enjoy a cone, then make a U-turn and drive four blocks straight back. After weeks of solo practice sessions she’d become a reasonably proficient, self-taught driver, at least as long as it involved going in a straight line down the street to the Dairy Queen. She waited to get her driver’s license in Menominee because they didn’t ask you to parallel park and, as the prosecuting attorney’s daughter-in-law, she count count on being treated with kid gloves by the police.
After we got married and moved to Ann Arbor, we’d always have a half gallon of ice cream in our refrigerator freezer. Once in a while, I’d eat the entire half gallon in a single sitting. One year I went in for my annual physical exam, and my doctor asked me about putting on weight. He wondered if I were eating a lot of sweets. I told him no, I never ate any sweets at all. After a short pause, I mentioned that I normally eat half a pint of ice cream for dessert each day. The doctor looked at me incredulously. He asked if I didn’t consider ice cream a sweet. I said no, that ice cream was a dairy product. It’s just about the healthiest thing you can eat for your bones and your teeth. The doctor shook his head. He didn’t realize that that’s what you learn when you grow up right next door to Wisconsin.
P.S. I assume that the title of this posting is self-explanatory. Just in case, it refers to the first two lines of a poem that we used to chant in unison as children:
We all scream
For Ice Cream!