Last time I visited Minnesota, I tried figuring out how many Dairy Queen Blizzards my mom has consumed since the company introduced them 25 years ago. We did this as we sat at the dining room table, minutes after returning from the one-minute drive from the DQ, the third trip we took there in six days. For someone who struggles with math, especially word problems, this was no easy task. The final number, I believe, was close to 500, taking into account the number of months the Janesville DQ is open each year, the average number of trips Mom takes each week and random stops to Dairy Queens along our nation's highways. It's a lot of pecan cluster Blizzards.
But that number is nothing compared to the number of chocolate shakes I've had in my lifetime. Today, on another 90-degree day in New York, I made the short walk to McDonald's for a Medium Chocolate Shake. I finished it before I was even halfway home, slurping up the final remnants and regretting that it was gone so soon.
How many shakes have I eaten in my life? I became a true shake professional around my 11th birthday. In the summer before sixth grade, I spent much of my newspaper delivery money on Dairy Queen chocolate malts, along with their hot dogs and a bag of chips. The whole meal cost something like three bucks. Since then I've had shakes and malts in a dozen states and a hundred restaurants. I've eaten them - and wished I hadn't - in Johannesburg and Cape Town. And I've made my own. I'm not a great cook of anything that doesn't involve the phrase "times may vary depending on your microwave," but I'm an expert when it comes to the malt arts. I've been blending them since I was a kid, perfecting my secret recipe that's never been committed to paper.
So figure three shakes or malts a week since 1986. That's about 150 a year. Which would be about 3,600 shakes or malts. Maybe that number is wrong. There's a decent chance I underestimated the final tally. As I picture all of those creations lined up - they could reach the moon! - I don't know whether to be proud or sickened. Does thinking about all those malts make me want another or make me wanna lose the one I just ate?
Regardless, this is one area of food - along with sugar cereals and sodas - is where I feel confident calling myself an expert. So, who makes the best shakes and malts?
* Ruttles. This restaurant changed my life. Ruttles came to Mankato in the 1980s. Fifties decor. Old-school diner-type deal, complete with "At the Hop" by Danny and the Juniors playing on the jukebox. Baby boomers loved it and so did their starved children. Ruttles served basic burgers and fries. But the chocolate malts dominated the menu. For the first time, I discovered the metal cups that contain the excess goodness. Ruttles put its malt in the skinny glasses, then provided the customer with 10 pounds of extra malt in the metal containers. This was what life was like in the '50s? What a wondrous time that must have been! These are those American values everyone's talking about, I guess. Ruttles was the big thing in Mankato for a few years but they eventually closed. People apparently just weren't that interested in eating while listening to Bill Haley and his Comets.
* Shake Shack. These are famous in New York City. The first one opened in Madison Square Park. Just a little roadside burger and fries joint in the middle of a big park in the biggest city in the country. People stand for an hour waiting for the food. One opened a few years ago on the Upper West Side and the line often stretched around the block. Another opened in the Mets's new stadium, and, again, people stood in line for a half-hour, waiting for the food. They'd miss two innings just for a burger and shake. Then again, all they're missing is the Mets. I, too, love Shake Shack. But not for the shakes. I think they have the best burger in New York. The shakes, to my advanced tastes, are somewhat average, not deserving of the hype. I'd stand an hour in line for one of their burgers. For one of their shakes? Ten minutes.
* McDonald's. Before every road basketball game during my two years at Worthington Community College, I ate a McDonald's chocolate milkshake. My coach ridiculed this every time, saying it would weigh me down during the game. I was already slow, I didn't think the ice cream was going to negatively affect me too much. McDonald's shakes remain a favorite and they're still relatively inexpensive. They're not quite thick enough to earn the top spot. During our last trip to Cape Town, we pulled into the McDonald's drive-through and bought a pair of chocolate shakes. Neither one tasted like chocolate. They didn't taste like vanilla, either. It was some type of previously unknown flavor, a vanilla-chocolate-strawberry concoction that was as gross as it was unique. For one of the few times in my life, I failed to finish a shake. For awhile this soured me on all McDonald's shakes, but we've reconciled.
* Every Friday during the summer, Mister Softee, the ubiquitous, unfortunately named ice cream truck, rolls into our parking lot, ready to serve the magazine masses. For the employees, it's all free - free, free! - and placates all at the end of the work week. We eagerly gather after 2 p.m., just like the neighborhood school children who hear the jingle and put down the basketball to come running. Every week I get a large chocolate shake, which is the equivalent of a McDonald's medium. They're okay. Too runny, too chocolate-y. With a shake or malt, I want to have to use a straw and a spoon. These things are like water. Delicious water, but still not an ideal shake.
* 4-H at a county fair. Summer time is county fair time in Minnesota. Pack everyone into the car, head to the county seat and walk around for three hours looking at everyone's prized pigs and cows. Maybe attend a demolition derby or an AWA event starring Nick Bockwinkle. Lose money playing games on the midway, win money playing bingo under a tent. Drink beer, eat corndogs. Repeat at each county fair you attend. The 4-H always had a booth set up at the Waseca County Fair for chocolate shakes. Farm kids make a damn good shake. The only negatives were that the cups were a bit too small for my liking, and they were usually styrofoam, which could sometimes take away from the taste.
* Dairy Queen. Still the king when it comes to establishments. Maybe it's because I now have limited access to DQ and only visit them a few times a year, depending on when we travel to Minnesota. If we only go back during the winter months, a whole year can pass without a Medium Chocolate Malt. I prefer the DQ malt over their shake. They put just the right amount in, the malt doesn't overwhelm the other ingredients. It's always just the right mixture, not too thick or too runny. You need a spoon and a straw to finish one off. Dairy Queens even have a unique smell. When we get within a few feet of the Janesville establishment, you can smell the cold ice cream. They must pump that smell out of a vat or something. God I miss Dairy Queen.
* Fury's Diner. Limited availability. Still my favorite. I started making my own malts in junior high, probably some night when my mom wasn't home and I was desperate. Some keys:
- I never use chocolate ice cream. It has to be vanilla ice cream for a chocolate malt. Chocolate ice cream is overkill, the nuances are lost in a sea of chocolate.
- I prefer Nestle powder over Hershey's syrup. Use Hershey's and it tastes too much like a candy bar. My grandma was the best cook I've ever known. Her French Toast, chocolate chip cookies, roast beef, potato salads, chicken and, well, everything else, were so good she should have been put on a stamp or something to honor her culinary greatness. But...when it comes to shakes and malts, I preferred the ones I made. That feels weird to type, blasphemous. It's like someone bragging about being a better writer than Shakespeare. Now, grandma made a great shake, and nearly every night I stayed over, she'd rise from her chair at about 8 and ask if I wanted one. I always said yes and a few minutes later she'd walk in with one of her glasses filled to the top. But grandma used Hershey's. For shakes and malts, I remain a Nestle guy. Forgive me, grandma.
Sometimes I put in some malt powder, occasionally I don't. The toughest part is figuring out how much milk to use. As I wrote, I like a shake where I have to use a straw and a spoon. I don't use measuring cups. It's all by feel, instinct. It's the only time I own the kitchen.
If I really have had more than 3,500 shakes in my life - Jesus, have I? - several hundred of them emerged from my kitchen. And as shocking as it sounds, those shakes are the best I've ever had.