The Dairy Bar
Last summer, our family stopped one lazy Saturday afternoon at Shaw's Dairy Bar, each of my kids begging for a soft-serve ice cream cone. It's a small establishment, just south of our country town, the menu offering its own special shorthand. There were "Wing Zings," kielbasa with kraut, meatball grinders, foot-long dogs, barnburgers, corn dogs, Michigan dogs, cheese sticks, buckets of chicken, and onion rings. If you were there for dessert, you could choose a "Frozen Eat-It-All Sandwich" or slush puppies, or the soft-serve ice cream, which comes in eight flavors, including banana ripple. You could order chocolate, rainbow, or krunch-kote sprinkles on top, but I knew that my two girls would go for a big cone of the bubble gum ice cream, swirled with pink flavoring on a stocky cone. My wife remembers the original bubble gum ice cream with real pieces of Bazooka in it. The trick was to avoid eating any of the cone since it stuck to the gum, which could be chewed and blown after the ice cream was finished.
Built onto the side of the Dairy Bar is a small shed called the "Dining Area," with red painted benches running around the inside walls. Three teenage boys were sitting there, waiting patiently for something to happen, smirking, talking with a bit more animation than was called for by the content of their conversation. Napkins stained with the blood red of ketchup and smears of chocolate ice cream sprang fitfully across the well-worn grass in the lively breeze. Whole families sat in vans in the parking area, licking and sucking swirled towers of freshly exuded confection, silent, intent in their pleasure. Pickups and motorcycles passed by but without the intensity of destination, just out for the ride.
Our family sat at one of the tables, tongues extended, licking great furrows in the custardy soft-serve, cool, creamy gobs sliding slowly across the tongue and then continuing deliciously toward the back of the throat. And then I began to notice the play of the branches in the large oak nearby, the breeze a fine thing on a hot summer afternoon. Distracted, I began to look at the people around us. An older couple was seated at a picnic table, the man's bright tortoise-shell glasses framed in stark relief by his nearly bald and perfectly round head. His features were small and simple, his expression reflecting his total focus on the matter at hand, a partially eaten onion ring, only the bottom half remaining, the milky white insides pulled halfway out of the crisp brown ring on the first bite. Other folks were the type who appear whitewashed in the dead of winter, the sort of strangers one might avoid in the supermarket checkout or down at the country store; old bachelors who talk about shooting their neighbors and women who stop washing their hair, their dark tresses limp and stringy. But on this day last summer, everyone looked refreshed. A lazy eye or a slight tic at the corners of the mouth had been dissolved by the warmth of the sun and the childlike pleasure of the Dairy Bar.
Each of us has food memories. For some, the velvety mouth-kissing texture of a well-made crème caramel enjoyed at a small Paris bistro haunts the memory, while others call to mind the crunch of biting through the deep-fried crust of mahogany-colored southern fried chicken. Pleasures once experienced are readily recalled, brought to mind in an absent moment. And over a lifetime we come to know how food is supposed to taste, whether a tomato sauce is properly balanced, whether a loaf of bread is pleasantly yeasty or overproofed.
And for those of us who cook as well as eat, we have the power to live in the moment, not just in the past, able and willing to fry the chicken or proof the bread. Each new bite of a familiar recipe brings us back in time, reconnecting to our past, but it also enlarges the present, filling our heads and kitchens with yeasty thoughts and aromas out of time. Cooks know that they can find paradise wherever they look, in a sharp piece of Vermont cheddar or in the sizzle of a good steak when it hits the cast-iron skillet. Some of us even find it in a napkin skittering across a well-worn lawn or in the summer's first bite of ice cream, our mouths filled with the familiar chew of krunch-kote sprinkles, our minds empty save for summer's rare pleasures.