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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Grits: Cuisine of the South

My wife, Maria, just loooves grits. Normally this wouldn’t be such a revolution, but she’s a born and bred Italian New Yorker. And, New Yorker’s do not eat grits. They eat farina, that creamy, smooth, rather bland breakfast portage known by many of us as cream of wheat. My wife Maria was certainly no exception.

grits

About three months into our relationship Maria and I decided to take a long weekend trip to the lower Ozarks in Arkansas, where we stayed at a lodge overlooking the White River. On our last morning while passing through a small village on the way home, we decided to stop for breakfast. As we browsed the menu, Maria disclosed that although she had heard about grits, she had never had them and was curious about their taste. So after some cajoling from me, she decided there would never be a better place to try them than at this tiny country restaurant. From that day on, she has developed an ever growing love for grits, unmatched by any born and bred Southerner that I know.

“Official State Food”

In the year 2002 Georgia made grits their state’s official prepared food. South Carolina’s Congress had passed a similar bill some 26 years prior, declaring:

“Whereas, throughout its history, the South has relished its grits, making them a symbol of its diet, its customs, its humor, and its hospitality, and whereas, every community in the State of South Carolina used to be the site of a grist mill and every local economy in the State used to be dependent on its product; and whereas, grits has been a part of the life of every South Carolinian of whatever race, background, gender, and income; and whereas, grits could very well play a vital role in the future of not only this State, but also the world, if as The Charleston News and Courier proclaimed in 1952: ‘An inexpensive, simple, and thoroughly digestible food, [grits] should be made popular throughout the world. Given enough of it, the inhabitants of planet Earth would have nothing to fight about. A man full of [grits] is a man of peace.’ “

So, exactly what are grits?

Grits are a thick, corn-based porridge of Native American origin, commonly served as a breakfast side dish in the American South. The word is derived from the Old English word “grytt,” meaning coarse meal. There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to grits–modern hominy grits and old fashioned corn grits.

Hominy grits are ground from hominy, one of the truly American foods, introduced to Sir Walter Raleigh and his men in 1584 by the Native Americans. Hominy is made from the kernels of dent corn (also referred to as field corn) that has been allowed to dry on the cob. It is then picked, cleaned, and soaked in an alkaline solution, causing the kernel’s skin to burst and the grain to expand to about twice its original size. The hominy is then dried, coarsely ground, and sifted to produce grits.

Hominy grits, also marketed as “quick grits” and “instant grits,” are available in U.S. supermarkets under various brand names. These grits are designed for fast cooking, typically five to seven minutes or less. Although hominy itself is available in both white and yellow varieties, depending on the color of corn used, hominy grits seem to come only in white.

However, a true lover of grits would never consider anything but long cooking, stone-ground corn grits. Unlike hominy grits which can have a rather bland, watery taste, corn grits (requiring 20 to 45 minutes to cook) provide the full corn flavor and creamy texture sought after by grit aficionados.

Corn grits begin with corn that has been dried to an average moisture content of about 17 percent. The kernels are first cleaned and screened to eliminate pieces of stalk, cob, dirt, seeds, burs and other field debris that may be mixed with the corn. The cleaned white stone ground corn gritscorn is then fed into the grinder where granite millstones weighing up to 1,500 pounds each are used to grind the dry kernels into a mixture of grits, meal, and cracked corn before being dropped into the sifter where it is separated. The first to be sifted is cornmeal, followed by grits, leaving only the cracked corn which is then recycled through the grinding operation to obtain more meal and grits. Typically the final yield per hundred pounds breaks down to 50 percent corn meal, 40 percent grits, and the rest a light bran used in producing a wide variety of products.

Historically white were the grits of choice in urban port cities of the south, while yellow corn grits were more predominant in the inland rural areas. Today, it is thought that white corn varieties have more mineral and floral nuances than the yellow varieties. Although available throughout the U.S., three-quarters of all grits are sold in the “grits belt,” an area below the Mason-Dixon line from Virginia to Texas.

grits and eggsIn the past, grits may have been considered by most as a side dish to be served alongside your morning eggs, but their popularity has grown in recent years as chefs throughout America rediscover heirloom foods and reinvent regional dishes of the past.

I hope that after reading this story you will give grits a try and grow to enjoy them, just as Maria did. They are one the great foods of the American South.

Buy Em: Adluh Stone Ground Corn Grits, Antebellum Coarse Grits, Palmetto Farms White Corn Stone Ground Grits

Make Em: Shrimp & Grits, Charleston-Style Grits, Smoked Gouda Cheese Grits