How Milwaukee Earned Its Custard Crown

Historical Roots Lie in State’s Abundance of Ice, Cream, and Eggs

Leon's neon

Story by Erika Janik
Photography by Joe Laedtke

 

It’s easy to take custard for granted in Milwaukee. Known unofficially (or officially depending on whom you ask) as the “custard capital of the world,” Milwaukee and its surrounding communities boast an impressive and well-respected lineup of frozen custard stands and shops, many with decades of cones and sundaes behind them and each with fans as loyal as those of any sports team. Everyone, from businessmen in suits and paramedics in uniform to grandmothers and former President Bill Clinton eats custard.

How can you explain something as critical to Milwaukee life as custard?

custardmakingFirst, frozen custard is not ice cream. The FDA requires custard to contain at least 10% butterfat and 1.4% egg yolks. That small percentage of yolk might not sound like much, but most ice creams contain less than one egg and some none at all because eggs are costly and require special handling in production. The yolks are crucial to custard’s satiny rich body and creamier finish.

The most vital element, though, may be what custard does not contain: air. The monstrous metallic machines used to make custard – known to fans as “iron lungs” – churn at a stately pace that introduces little air, or “overrun” as the percentage of air is called, into the mixture, so the finished custard that extrudes from the machine is dense and thick. Spoons stand at attention in a bowl of custard. In contrast, many commercial ice cream makers whip lots of air, as much as 100%, into their product for volume and texture. So a finished pint or half gallon may contain nearly as much air as ice cream.

“I feel fortunate to be in a business with a product that people love. I love the flavors, I love the texture, I just love custard.”
-Tom Linscott, owner of Gilles Frozen Custard

Custard is also stored a few degrees warmer than a normal ice cream dipping cabinet and is usually scooped fresh so the custard maintains its silky texture. When custard is less cold, your mouth doesn’t get as frozen and you can taste the flavors better.

Time consuming to make and best served fresh, most custard stands offer vanilla and chocolate with a few rotating daily flavors. In 1960, Kopp’s became the first custard stand to offer a more unusual or seasonal flavor of the day, a trend that soon spread to other custard stands. The daily flavor concept has even spawned a website, custardlist.com, that tracks offerings at stands across the nation.

Even so, vanilla remains a perennial favorite.

“We sell three times as much vanilla custard as every other flavor combined,” says Tom Linscott, owner of Gilles Frozen Custard. “And more people want cones by a wide margin than sundaes or cups.”

sundaeDespite Wisconsinites’ deep devotion to the treat, frozen custard did not begin here.  Legend has it that nearly a century ago Archie Kohr purchased a commercial ice cream machine to earn extra money from his family’s Pennsylvania dairy farm. He whipped up an initial batch so unpalatable that he tinkered with the machine and his recipe. He introduced eggs to the mix to improve the texture and keep his frozen treat from melting too quickly. With the encouragement of his family, Kohr brought his machine to New York’s Coney Island in the summer of 1919. In his first two days, he sold more than 18,000 cones priced at a nickel each. Frozen custard was born.

Kohr wasn’t the first to put eggs in ice cream, though. So-called “French-style” ice creams made with egg yolks were well known in late 17th and early 18th century Europe where advances in freezing techniques using ice and salt, long before the advent of refrigeration, were revolutionizing dessert. Chilled custards and creams containing rose petals, artichokes, cheese, caramel, ginger, and laurel leaves among other exotic flavorings were ubiquitous. The first book devoted entirely to ice cream, M. Emy’s 1768 L’Art de bien faire les glaces d’office, contained recipes for rye bread ice cream and even ones with macaroons and cookies, forerunners of today’s cookie-dough, Oreo, and other crunchy cookie favorites. Vanilla did not become common until the mid-19th century.

In the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson took extensive notes on the ice creams he tasted in Europe. He brought recipes for the yolky French-style ice cream he loved and an ice cream machine home with him to Monticello. The first American recipe for ice cream may be the one for vanilla in Jefferson’s own handwriting.

custardIce cream arrived in Wisconsin in the 19th century, its popularity bolstered by the state’s ice harvesting trade. Milwaukee’s meat-packing and brewing industries depended heavily on cold storage, making ice a major industry in the 1870s and 1880s. Wisconsin’s many lakes were regarded as dependable sources of high quality ice, particularly as factories polluted waterways in other northern states. Waukesha County’s Lake Pewaukee became a prime harvesting site, used first by Best Brewery and followed by the meatpackers Armour and Cudahy, as did other Wisconsin lakes with easy access to rail lines. Ice men carrying tongs for home delivery remained a familiar sight in Milwaukee neighborhoods well into the 1930s.

Recipes for ice creams appeared with some regularity in Milwaukee area newspapers in the 1880s and 1890s. In the Weekly Wisconsin in 1897, a Mrs. Jamison answered every sick child’s prayers when she recommended ice cream “in cases of sickness, especially in fevers, where cooling drinks and foods is called for.”

Prohibition launched a national ice cream boom. Consumption went up by 100 million gallons after the nation went dry in 1920, as taverns transformed into soda fountains and ice cream parlors. Some breweries even began churning out ice cream as they waited and lobbied for repeal of the law.

Frozen custard made its way west from Coney Island in the 1930s, debuting in the Midwest at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. After the fair, frozen custard became wildly popular in cities all over the Midwest, but none more so than Milwaukee, with its bounty of Wisconsin eggs and dairy products.

Milwaukee’s oldest custard stand is Gilles Frozen Custard, opened by Paul Gilles in 1938. A few years later, custard machine repairman Leon Schneider founded his eponymous Leon’s Frozen Custard Drive-In in 1942. Leon’s is rumored to have inspired the drive-in concept for Arnold’s on Happy Days. Schneider helped Elsa Kopp start her own custard business, Kopp’s Frozen Custard, in 1950, which has since grown to three locations.

The car culture of the 1950s and 1960s drew teenagers that helped custard stands and shops like Kitt’s Frozen Custard Drive-In and The Kiltie in Oconomowoc blossom all over the Milwaukee area. While a few Wisconsin frozen custard restaurants have grown into local and national chains, most are family-run businesses with a single location.

Leons1Milwaukee became a custard and ice cream town on the strength of its local ingredients – dairy, eggs, and ice – and has never looked back. Today, Milwaukee reportedly has more custard stores per capita than any other city. Even the harsh Wisconsin winter does not deter custard lovers, as nearly all remain open year round. Many out-of-state custard stands can be traced back to Wisconsin, including the popular Milwaukee Frozen Custard franchise in northern Virginia that honors the city’s dominance in the custard field.

Gilles’ Linscott feels lucky to bring custard to Milwaukee.

“I feel fortunate to be in a business with a product that people love,” says Linscott. “I love the flavors, I love the texture, I just love custard.”

MKE’s newest frozen dessert maker

Despite custard’s long lineage in Milwaukee, the city’s newest frozen dessert maker Purple Door Ice Cream chose a different path. In part, it was an effort to stand out in a custard-besotted city.

“The history of Milwaukee is custard and while we talked a lot about whether to make custard, we already have so many great custard stands, so this is the direction we went,” says Lauren Schultz, co-owner with her husband Steve of Purple Door Ice Cream.

Purple DoorOwning an ice cream stand was a childhood dream for Schultz, who grew up on the south side of Chicago eating ice cream. Fortunately, she found a partner who loved her idea, and the business launched in 2011.

Purple Door’s super premium ice cream contains no eggs and uses locally sourced ingredients mixed by hand into a 14% butterfat cream from a Wisconsin dairy cooperative in Neenah. Like the custard stands, Purple Door has vanilla and chocolate but also more unusual offerings like black licorice, balsamic strawberry, and chai with pink peppercorn.

Many flavors are inspired by partnerships with other local businesses like Great Lakes Distillery, which has resulted in a whiskey and whiskey chocolate ice cream, and basil ice cream with herbs from Alice’s Garden. Honey from hives atop the Clock Shadow Building that houses Purple Door’s retail store will be featured in new flavors this summer.

In some ways, Purple Door’s unique flavors are a return to ice cream’s origins, when herbs, spices, and even rye bread were common flavors. Schultz has an ever-growing list of ideas for new flavors, dreamed up in conversation with Milwaukee chefs and other local producers. She says Purple Door hopes to give customers “a taste of the city” through their ice cream.

Ice Cream and Frozen Dessert Decoder

Is gelato the same as ice cream? What’s soft-serve? Here’s your rough guide to ice cream and its frozen cousins:

Frozen Custard must contain at least 10% butterfat and eggs. It is slow-churned in a machine that adds less air and is usually served fresh at a higher temperature than ice cream.

Kopps2Frozen Yogurt is yogurt plus sweetener, flavoring, and often a thickener churned in an ice cream machine.

Gelato uses more milk than cream and typically has less than 10% butterfat. It is slow-churned to reduce the amount of air in the base, and served at a warmer temperature than ice cream.

Ice Cream in the United States is required by law to contain at least 10% butterfat. The amount of air, or “overrun,” in ice cream varies and influences the texture of the finished product. The percentage of butterfat, not its ingredients, determines its place in the ice cream world.

Super-premium ice cream contains about 14-16% butterfat.

Premium ice cream contains 12-14% butterfat. Ice cream contains 10% butterfat.

Sherbet is similar to sorbet, made primarily of fruit juice and sugar, but it also Soft Serve is generally lower in butterfat than ice cream, around 3-6%, and is produced in a machine that integrates air during the freezing process, resulting in an ice cream light and smooth in texture.

Sorbet usually contains no dairy at all. It is often frozen fruit juice, sugar, and water.

 

Erika JanikErika Janik is a writer, historian, and the executive producer of “Wisconsin Life” on Wisconsin Public Radio. She’s the author of the books “Apple: A Global History”, “Madison: A History of a Model City”, “A Short History of Wisconsin”, and “Odd Wisconsin”, and her work has appeared in Smithsonian, Midwest Living, Salon, the Wisconsin Magazine of History, and Wisconsin Trails, among others.

 

 

JoeLaedtkeJoe Laedtke has been a life-long food enthusiast, starting when he was still a kid growing up in Washington Heights, watching his grandma Shirley intently as she taught him her secret recipes for onion dip, turkey gravy, and rouladen, and even through college as he delivered pizzas throughout the greater Ripon area in a 1978 AMC Pacer. These days, he proudly represents the unique combination of freelance photographer and licensed funeral director, and has garnered national attention with his website, Eating Milwaukee, including a segment on CBS This Morning. He has absolutely no willpower whatsoever around essentially any Asian cuisine.

 

 

 

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