Even in the dead of winter there is one treat that always appeals to me. Driving down University twice a day I have no choice but to pass a certain blue and white building with concrete benches and umbrella tables that remain up even in the snow. A changeable sign outside advertises the daily special and like Pavlov’s dog I begin to salivate for ice cream.
With flavor names reduced to ‘choc alm cr’ the cryptic words can not fool me as my senses start to imagine the sweet and salty mix of chocolate and almonds that crunch when you take a bite. I don’t even like chocolate ice cream yet I have been known to stop traffic on a dime to turn into Culver’s eatery to feed my ice cream craving.
My obsession with ice cream began early with opportunities surrounding me as a child. Something my children have never experienced was ice cream that practically came to your door, if not your door, at least your street.
The sound of the Mr. Softee truck coming down our street was enough to send a kid into a frenzy. Running to our mom, begging for money, we were in a race against time to corral the truck even if it meant throwing ourselves into the street to stop the vehicle with the giant glob of plastic ice cream on its roof.
Mom could almost always magically pull quarters from her mumu pockets to the relief of anyone who happened to be home at the time when the “Pop Goes the Weasel” tune (or something equally obnoxious) repeated over and over drawing us out like a mechanical Pied Piper of Peoria.
If the driver was older and kind, he would pull into an empty parking place half way down the block and wait patiently for the kids on that street to gather their nickels and race to the truck to ponder their choices as they waited in line.
If the driver was vindictive or in a hurry, he would continue to drive for as long as he could until the kid chased him down, gave up or an adult got involved. I remember my mom once jokingly threatened to shoot out the tires of the truck, but I think that was to encourage him NOT to return rather than stop. Either way, they eventually stopped, pulled to the side and smiled as they slid open the window on the side.
The choices when compared to the modern ice cream place were limited, but still very exciting. Soft serve ice cream in vanilla, chocolate and a twist of both were available on plain flat bottom cones. If you had a little extra money you could have the treat rolled in a dish of colored sprinkles or coated in a shiny shell of hard chocolate.
There was no saving these treats as the heat worked fast and the sprinkles would soon begin to slide down the soggy cone along with melting chocolate shell to run in tech-no-color rivers down bare arms. Washing down with the garden hose helped to clean off hands and arms and bare feet. Anywhere that could catch the sticky mess had to be wiped off before running inside after a treat like that.
Ice cream that came to the house was a real convenience, but by far, my favorite ice cream memories were centered around the neighborhood dairy behind our house.
Located on Western Ave. Schwab’s Dairy, a family owned business, was well known on the South Side. A short walk through the alley brought us to the factory and store part of the dairy. The outside was done in tiles and glass in colors of beige and black. It was a cool place to escape the heat on summer days.
I was young when the dairy was still operating and could not navigate the potholes, broken glass or truck traffic without an adult. I remember being taken to Schwab’s once by my favorite neighbor, Mr. King who was my big buddy and allowed me to paint fences with him and try to dig to the other side of the world with his post hole digger. We were good friends. He did insist on wearing shoes to go to the store, however, not one of my favorite things, but for ice cream? Anything!
The counter was high (or I was really short) and it was black, possibly marble. I only saw the underside, so I can’t say for sure. The ice cream was wonderful! It was unique in that they had square blocks of ice cream shoved into square cones. Truthfully, I only remember the cold and the taste, but my older sister says the squares are what made the ice cream so good. And older sisters never lie. Presentation is one thing but, with ice cream…it’s all about the taste for me.
Of course the ambiance is important too, and what could have been better than the smell of rich vanilla ice cream, the sweet cool air of the lobby or the clink of the bottles of milk as they were washed and filled with milk. It was a great place to visit, but unfortunately did not last as long as I would have liked. A modern store was built in front of the dairy and the factory part closed down.
The closing down part was my younger brothers’ favorite part because they loved playing in the broken down delivery trucks that remained for awhile after the main part closed. They played driving and gangsters and even ice cream delivery guys, but they were boys and you know how they are. I am sorry they were too young to have enjoyed the real dairy part of the place like my older sister and I did, but if they got to enjoy pretending to drive trucks and thought that was fun, good for them. The dairy is gone completely now, replaced by an auto parts store, kind of ironic, isn’t it?
Originally published on Peoria.com