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In the News

Posted on Wed, July 17, 2002
Section: FEATURES FOOD
Edition: ADVANCE
Page: F01
Memo: On the Side

Found Again: Real Frozen Custard
By Rick Nichols
Inquirer Columnist
CHAMBERSBURG, PA – The sign outside the tidy brick box that is Kenny’s Drive-In, off Route 11 near here, didn’t say “Frozen custard” as the impostors so often do.

It just said “Lemon” – not your usual ice cream flavor – “hand-dipped and fresh.”

Kenny’s regulars know that’s one of Kenny Hoover’s rotating, original-recipe flavors, fresh from the 1950-vintage Electro Freeze batch-maker, its lemony lushness enhanced with lemon oil and a hint of pineapple.

I didn’t have a clue. The fact that it turned out to be as close to genuine frozen custard as I’ve had in 40 years was a happy bonus, the payoff for decades of braking for signs like Kenny’s.

It has become something of a holy grail for me – frozen custard, a remnant of childhood washed away with Atlantic City’s innocence, buried by Dairy Queen’s slick, dissembling curls. (The custard at the Shore went fluffy years ago.)

It was not ice cream, exactly, at least as we’ve come to know it. Ice cream is frozen solid and packed hard; custard never quite achieves that solidity. It wasn’t soft serve, either, though it is, in a sense, soft serve’s grandpa. Frozen custard was a higher order – richer, deeper, yolkier; softer and creamier than ice cream; denser than marshmallowy soft serve.

And here it was again, finally, southwest of Harrisburg, down the highway from a spot called the Igloo and a McDonald’s that almost closed a few years ago when they downsized the repair shops at Letterkenny Army Depot.

Kenny Hoover is sanguine. He is deep into his 70s now, a product of the Polar Bear custard chain that once ruled Washington. Kenny’s Drive-In is the last of several custard operations he started himself in Hagerstown, Md.

He sold Kenny’s a few years ago, but still drops by to fix the aging Electro Freeze. The new owners pay him with a few pints of custard – peanut butter (with its kick of a little salt) is his favorite. They call him King Custard.

So I ask Kenny Hoover to solve a mystery for me. How come frozen custard, so perfect, has faded so completely from the landscape?

He says it is a lot of things, probably – the speed of newer machines, the impatience of the customer, the cheapness of air, the illusion of light.

His old-time barrel-humped Electro Freeze paddles the custard through its chamber in minutes. It exits the nozzle still soft, a bit airy, and is put in refrigerated cases to be dipped that day.

The newer machines save time because they are what he calls – with distaste in his voice – “direct draw.” You stick the cone under the nozzle and fill ‘er up.

What you sacrifice, though, is flavor intensity. To keep the ice cream soft enough to do direct draw, it needs to keep circulating, remaking itself in a way, the blades beating and beating and beating more air into it.

Air, of course, is a rather cheap ingredient. So soft-serve spots caught on with owners. Weigh his custard, Hoover says – a pint will be 16 ounces. The softer ice cream? Eleven ounces, if you’re lucky.

“The guy up the road might give you a bigger cone,” Hoover says. “But you better hold on. It might float away.”

Oh, there are other reasons, presumably. The fear of fat didn’t exactly advantage custard, with its higher butterfat content and its egg yolks. The extra cost of labor didn’t advantage stands that required hand-dipping.

Then came a tipping point. Youngsters whose notion of ice cream was shaped by Dairy Queen finally had no memory of frozen custard. Soft serve was their ice cream archetype, even as the Big Mac has come to signify The American Hamburger.

So it has come to pass even at Kenny’s Drive-In that you can order a variety of ice creams – sugar-free Hershey’s for diabetics, soft serve (from a late-model Electro Freeze machine) for the kids.

It hurts Kenny Hoover’s heart to see cones “with those funny, nice curls” – the pretenders – being sold right next to his original-recipe flavors.

For me, Kenny’s Drive-In was a rapturous discovery.

For King Custard, it’s his last stand, and it is not easy letting go.

Rick Nichols can be contacted at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

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Copyright (c) 2002 The Philadelphia Inquirer