Despite the fact that it's cold outside, I wake up in the middle of the night a lot these days thinking about frozen custard. That's because I'm co-authoring a book about this delicacy at the moment and it's consuming me even more than I consume custard, which is saying something.
Everyone's first question when they hear about the project is: which is your favorite stand?
I'm an equally opportunity fan of custard.
Leon's? You bet.
Kopp's? Oh yes.
Gilles? Most certainly.
But also Oscar's, and Pop's in Menomonee Falls, and Out & Out in Cedarburg, and Shirl's in Kenosha, and Mickey's in Hartford, and Georgie Porgie's in Oak Creek or Mount Pleasant (though they have Custard King machine at the latter), and Murph's in Brookfield, and Toucan in West Bend.
I rarely get custard and am disappointed by it. Make that never, really. (I do admit, however, that I have a special fondness for Gilles' in Fond du Lac, which I've been to exactly once and which still has carhops, an amazing old stand with a neon-lit awning and great custard.)
But, other than my desire to eat it, I never really thought that much about custard in the past. I just ordered it, ate it and wanted more.
Now, whenever I walk into a place the first thing I do is look at the machine. I can spot a Carvel Custard King from 100 paces, even if the decorative crown-shaped nameplate has been removed. On a recent trip to Florida, I saw a listing for a custard place and wondered not what the flavor of the day was, but rather, "do they use a custard machine or are they running mix through a soft-serve machine?" (You'll have to wait for the book, due out by summer, for a deeper discussion of the science of that.)
Despite my newfound knowledge of butterfat levels for custard versus ice cream versus soft-serve and my ability to sound like I know what I'm talking about when discussing where the early Clark's Frozen Custard locations were in Milwaukee or how many stands Frozen Custard Inc. operated at the 1933 A Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago – and, above all, the stress of meeting a looming deadline – I still really just want to eat custard.
Learning all of this stuff has been interesting and at times surprising, but the best part has been meeting the people behind the window (and getting to go behind the counter myself a couple times). Spending a couple hours learning the ins and outs of the retail side and history from Leon's owner Ron Schneider, talking dessert science with Chef Kurt Fogle, learning about custard mix and machines from Ted Galloway, whose family has been in the dairy business for decades, hearing about how growing up in a custard stand sparked a culinary career for Zak Groh, to name a few.
What I've also learned from these folks is that family is a big key to the custard business in this town (and likely in many others, including the longest-running custard stand, which is in Lafayette, Ind., incidentally).
The owners of many custard stands are the children and grandchildren of founders of those businesses and they speak wistfully and lovingly of their forebears. To them, custard is more than just a business, it's a family affair. Kind of like it is to us when we perch outside a stand with a cone in hand, sharing a moment of joy with our loved ones.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.