Dairy Queen: A Small-Town Texas Icon

Seventy-seven years of Dairy Queen highlights:

1940: First Dairy Queen store opens in Joliet, Illinois.
1949: DQ introduces malts and shakes.
1951: Banana splits appear on the menu.
1953: First DQ store opens in Canada.
1955: Dilly Bar debuts.
1957: Dairy Queen/Brazier concept is introduced.
1958: Dairy Queen/Brazier food products introduced.
1961: Mr. Misty slush treat cools throats in the warm South.
1962: International Dairy Queen, Inc. (IDQ) is formed.
1965: First national radio advertising sends DQ message 169 million times a week.
1966: First national TV commercial, “Live a Little,” is aired.
1968: Buster Bar Treat is introduced.
1972: First DQ store opens in Japan.
1973: Say the word “Scrumpdillyishus!” and get a Peanut Buster Parfait for 49 cents.
1979: The DQ system debuts in the Middle East.
1980: “We Treat You Right” tagline debuts.
1985: Over 175 million Blizzard Treats sold in its first year.
1989: Dairy Queen ranked America’s #1 treat chain.
1991: First DQ store opens in Mexico.
1995: DQ Treatzza Pizza and Chicken Strip Basket debut.
1999: Pecan Mudslide Treat is introduced.
1999: A DQ operator in Massachusetts builds the world’s largest Blizzard Treat, weighing in at 5,316.6 pounds.
2001: Crispy Chicken Salad is introduced.
2001: The first DQ Grill & Chill restaurant opens in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
2002: Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, becomes manager of a DQ location in Texas for the day.
2003: The Blizzard of the Month program kicks off.
2004: The MooLatte Frozen Coffee Flavored Beverage line debuts in mocha, vanilla and caramel flavors.
2004: Award-winning Dairy Queen commercials can be seen throughout the country in the system’s first full year of national advertising.
2005: GrillBurgers are introduced on national TV.
2005: A new World’s Largest Blizzard record is set when a new 22 foot tall Treat is built weighing 8,224.85 pounds in Springfield, Massachusetts.

When I was a young boy growing up in North Texas in the early 50s, Interstate highways didn’t exist. In fact, I’m not sure if the two-lane roads of the time could even be considered a highway, at least not by today’s standards. So when my parents, sister and I made the three and a half hour trip to my birthplace in southeastern Oklahoma, we drove through a number of small Texas towns–Melissa (pop 405), Anna (pop 520), Howe (pop 680), to name a few. I was always amazed that each and every one of those towns, no matter how small, had at least one Dairy Queen.

Always located close to the town’s edge, the local Dairy Queen, also referred to as “DQ” by many, seemed not only to be a popular eatery (in some cases the only eatery) but the community’s social center as well. You may not have been able to find a public library, or even a city hall in many of these towns, but everyone knew how to find the local Dairy Queen.

Dairy Queen got its start in 1938 in an ice cream store in Kankakee, Illinois owned by Sherb Noble. It seems his good friend John “Grandpa” McCullough and McCullough’s son Alex convinced Sherb to begin offering his customers the soft-serve ice cream they had formulated. After selling more than 1,600 servings in just two hours the trio knew they were on to something big, so two years later, on June 22, 1940, the three friends opened the first Dairy Queen on 501 North Chicago Street in Joliet, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. And although that Dairy Queen closed for business in the 1950s, the building still stands as a city designated historic landmark.

The name Dairy Queen was derived from the phrase “the queen among dairy products” used by Grandpa McCullough in describing his ice cream. While the McCullough’s may or may not have invented soft-serve ice cream (some say that honor belongs to Tom Carvel), their proprietary recipe for it has always been a highly guarded trade secret known only by a trusted few.

While there are more than 4,500 DQ stores in the continental U.S., Texas is home to more Dairy Queens than any other state. All 593 stores in the Lone Star State are owned and operated by franchisees, a group of independent operators so large and with so much leverage they have their own Operator’s Council (TDQOC), host a separate marketing website from the national organization, and even maintain their own menu.

Yes, Texas Dairy Queens’ menu has food offerings not found in other U.S. locations. Branded as Texas Country Foods, some of the unique items you’ll find only at Texas DQ’s include “Hungr-Buster” burgers, the “Dude” chicken-fried steak sandwich and steak finger baskets, T-Brand tacos, and the “BeltBuster” half-pound double meat hamburger.

The first Dairy Queen in Texas opened its doors May 31, 1950 on U.S. Highway 259 in Henderson, a small East Texas city (pop 6,800) in the midst of an oil boom. Today this DQ holds the title of the oldest continuously operated Dairy Queen in Texas with almost seven decades of providing patrons courteous, efficient service and soft-serve ice cream, shakes, burgers and fries.

Although the Dairy Queen system has had many changes throughout the years, one constant has remained. DQ’s have always been and will continue to be the place where local sports teams celebrate their victories, business people go on their lunch breaks and families enjoy great food and soft-serve treats. In fact, Dairy Queen is the largest seller of soft frozen desserts in the world.

It’s been more than 50 years since those childhood trips to Oklahoma. Many of the small towns we used to drive through have all but died since being bypassed by the new super highways. As for myself, I prefer the nostalgia of driving the back roads. I enjoy the slower pace, the old turn-of-the-century buildings, and the friendly people. Most of all I enjoy stopping for a burger with extra onions, fries, and a soft-serve chocolate shake at the local Dairy Queen.

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Chili, the American Dish with Mexican Roots

chili2aThere is one fact about that popular, spicy concoction we call chili (or chili con carne) that should be cleared up right from the very start–it did not come from Mexico. If there is any doubt of what the citizenry of our southernmost neighbors think of this dish, one needs only to consult the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, which defines chili as “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York.”

Although there are many stories and legends about the origin of chili, research points to Texas as its most likely birthplace–San Antonio, Texas to be specific. However, there is little doubt that this popular American stew is heavily influenced by Mexican spices and ingredients. After all, San Antonio was founded by the Spanish in the early 1700s. It is said that in an effort to quickly establish their presence, the King of Spain sent sixteen families from the Canary Islands (one of Spain’s sovereign territories) to San Antonio to settle the area. In their attempt to replicate the much loved spicy, pungent stews of their homeland, these immigrants found it necessary to substitute their native meats, spices, berries, peppers, and other ingredients with those sourced from the local Mexicans and Indians. Thus chili was born. And while some ingredients may have changed over the years (beef instead of buffalo or wild game; domesticated chilies instead of wild peppers, known as “chiliquitas” for instance), the basic recipe for the dish remains the same today.

Chili Stand, San Antonio, 1902.from institute oof texan cultures, UTSAIn the 1880s, a number of women known as the Chili Queens, started setting up stands in an area of San Antonio known as Military Plaza from which they sold chili (or “bowls o’ red,” as it was called) for ten cents, including bread and water. It wasn’t long before word of these open air stalls spread and Military Plaza became a tourist attraction. In fact, so great was the Chili Queens’ fame that the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago had its own San Antonio Chili Stand from which to introduce this southwestern elixir to the world outside the American West.

The reign of San Antonio’s Chili Queens ended in September of 1937 when the local health department implemented sanitary standards requiring the Queens to adhere to the same health codes as brick-and-mortar restaurants. Although Mayor Maury Maverick reinstated their operating privileges in 1939, the health department developed even more stringent rules were reapplied in 1943 and the Chili Queen’s disappeared from the city forever.

Jack Ingram, Ingram's Chili Bowl, c1983, by Tim BakerBy the twentieth century, chili joints had made their debut throughout Texas and were spreading outside the state. During the 1920s and 1930s, “chili parlors” popped up across the midwest and soon there was hardly a town anywhere that didn’t have at least one chili parlor–often nothing much more than a room with a small stove, counter, and stools.

Some of the best known chili parlors include Taylor’s Mexican Chili Parlor that opened in 1904 on Main Street in Carlinville, Illinois. Like most early chili joints, Taylor’s is a small place with a counter and six wooden stools, a dozen well-worn tables, and plenty of framed photos and newspaper articles lining the wood paneled walls. As one customer said, “People don’t come here for the ambiance. They come for the chili.” And chili they have–a fiery concoction not for the wimpy palate or faint-of-heart, with beans on the side.

Another of the midwest’s well known chili parlors is Big Ed’s Chili Mac’s Diner on Pine Street in downtown St. Louis. Big Ed’s signature dish is called a “Slinger”–two burger patties with slabs of melted American cheese, topped with hashbrowns, two eggs, and smothered in chili. A chili-head’s delight still available today.

Probably one of Texas’ most popular chili parlors of the time was Bob Pool’s chili joint which operated in downtown Dallas from the mid-1940’s to the mid-1950s. Located across Main Street from Neiman Marcus, one of America’s elite department stores, it was said that the store’s president, Stanley Marcus, was not only a frequent diner but bought and shipped Pool’s chili to friends and customers around the country.

TolbertStarPageLogoAnother Texas chili aficionado who is a must mention in any chili story is Frank X. Tolbert, historian, Dallas Morning News columnist, chili enthusiast, and co-founder of the World Chili Championship Cook-off in Terlingua, Texas. He also founded and operated the Original Frank Tolbert Chili Parlor. Tolbert opened his first restaurant in 1976 in downtown Dallas and by the time of his death in 1984, there were three. But by 2003, all of the original locations had closed. Then in March of 2006, Frank’s daughter, Kathleen, revived Tolbert’s in a restored building in the historic district of Grapevine, Texas.

Today, chili can be found throughout America in a variety of styles. In addition to traditional Texas chili (chili con carne), which is thick, spicy, and never cooked with beans (although sometimes served on the side), there is the very popular Cincinnati-style chili (invented by Greek immigrants), vegetarian chili (also known as “chili sin carne”), green chili (chili verde), a moderate to extremely spicy chili usually made with pork and popular in New Mexico, white chili made with white beans and turkey or chicken meat.

CincinnitiChili2In addition to the various styles of chili, it seems each region of the country has their own favorite way of serving chili. For example, there is Cincinnati’s chili mac, or “four-way.” This dish consists of spaghetti topped with beans, topped with chili, and finally cheddar cheese. Add diced onions and you have a “five-way.” This is also the way chili is eaten in the U.S. military.

In New Orleans, chili is prepared very much like Texas chili but served over slightly al dente rice. This is also the common way Hawaiians enjoy their chili as well–referred to there as “chili rice.”

In Texas, where chili is the official state dish, it is usually enjoyed by itself, garnished perhaps with a dollop of sour cream, some chopped onion, and little cheddar cheese. And while the purists would never add beans to their chili, much of the time it is accompanied by a cup of pintos and a chunk of cornbread or tortillas. Texas is also the home of “Frito pie.” That classic southwestern delicacy made from layers of Fritos corn chips, chili, onions, and cheese.

So no matter how you choose to enjoy your chili, enjoy it you should. And the best way to ensure you do, is to make your own–hot or mild, spicy or sweet, beef, pork, or meatless. We’ve included several recipes here from which at least one (or a variation thereof) should suit your taste buds. Remember chili can be just about anything you want it to be, except one–it’s not Mexican food!

Buy Em: Hormel Chili, Wolf Brand Chili, Nalley Chili, Ray’s Chili, Dennison’s Chili

Make Em: Original San Antonio Chili, Bob Pools Brew Chili, Tolbert’s Bowl of Red, Cincinnati Chili, Cry Wolf Chili, President Johnson’s Pedernales River Chili