Soft serve, like strawberries, is a distinctly seasonal taste, and similarly fragile: The weather that demands it also destroys it. Even so, it is a highly technological treat. The mix contains preservatives, congealers and sweeteners, and comes in five-gallon bags with dispenser locks that NASA could've had a hand in inventing. In the Dairy Queen where I worked for two-and-a-half years in high school, the bags were sucked dry in the cooler, and the contents were sent up front through 30-foot-long pipes into a contraption that Willy Wonka might have created: all that gurgling and whooshing for just a squirt of creamy white slush. But for all the technology, it is not very far from the Ziploc trick: churn, freeze, and squeeze.
I was drawn to Dairy Queen by the romance and coolness of a drive-in, with a carhop and all, and by the promise of decent wages. The money was pretty good for a 16-year-old, but the cool wore off pretty quickly.
The carhops spent a lot of time standing around with heavy bags of food while stoned teens and harried housewives dug around under the car seats for change. Those carhops had to walk fast, even in the humid heat that rose up off the parking lot in summer. Every position had its problem. On the grill, we simmered. At the front counter, our faces ached from having to smile.
On top of it all, we really did have to pay attention to what we were doing. Ours was not the indifferent dumping of the slack-jawed youths at the frozen-yogurt shops. We had a delicate technique, maneuvering the cone to get that perfectly bulbous vertex with the trademark curlicue on top. People wanted pretty, and pretty is not the natural state for soft ice cream. We fought daily to force the sludgy stuff into shapes with enough structure to survive an upside-down dip into hot chocolate coating.
Part of that ice-cream experience was completely demoralizing. It was, after all, my initiation into corporate culture. We weighed everything -- 4-ounce cones, 2-ounce Dilly Bars, 3 1/2-ounce small fries. After a year, I became an occasional shift manager, calculating worker pay against income and sending people home ruthlessly if the percentage got too high. Uniforms were a polyester nightmare, too tough to soften with wear, but not tough enough to resist the milkshake particles that escaped from the blender and plastered themselves across our chests.
To top it off, the place was a sexist trap. For years, the owner hired only young women. Few boys wanted to work at a place called Dairy Queen, anyway, yet still the owner defended his segregationist practices vocally. We were a higher class of girls, he said, intelligent, cheery, fresh-faced (at least until we ate fries every night for a month). He seemed to be catering to some kind of retro sensibility about pure maidens handling dairy products.
Little did they know. Put six young women in a room together and spoilage will occur. There were food fights and door slamming and all kinds of petty bitchery. The back room was thick with menthol smoke and rattling cases of birth control pills.
I stared at a lot at the smart-mouthed girls with their cigarettes and sharp voices, kept out of their way and turned my attention to this grand opportunity to explore food and flavors away from my family's influence. That sounds highbrow, and that's not what I was thinking. But it is what I was doing, turned loose in a kitchen with two grills, a deep fryer and ingredients that my mom rarely had on hand: bacon strips, seasoning salt, pickle chips. I wasn't the only one to create strange meals out of employee-discounted ingredients. We all ate as though we were pregnant. (Only one of us ever did get pregnant; she started eating salads.)
If the restaurant was our playground, soft-serve ice cream was our sandbox. We tested the boundaries, created new structures and demolished them, questioned the rules. How much malt is too much? How much chocolate dip should be added to a shake before the integrity and texture is compromised? What is the appeal of marshmallow topping? Some of us became masters of the whipped-cream container, knowing exactly how much of the gas you could suck out and still get a good frilly edge. Others, more daring, played with phallic possibilities, drawing out the top of the ice-cream cone or sundae long and lascivious until it collapsed.
Really, we girls had no authority and little control in that shop, and yet I remember those summers as a taste of freedom, with an appetite that was mine to choose.
Going Soft in Cincinnati
West side Cincinnatians know soft serve ice cream isn't found only at Dairy Queen. PUTZ'S CREAMY WHIP, right off the Montana Road exit of I-74, not only has its own street -- you'll find it at 2673 Putz Place in Westwood (513-681-8668) -- it's listed in Jane and Michael Stern's Road Food, a high honor indeed. It's been around for years, and insiders know that standing in line sometimes takes longer than devouring a cone or slurping a kid's soda with a candy face.