SOFT-SERVE ICE CREAM, ACCORDING TO my father, is—and I quote—"an abomination unto the Lord." That's a minority opinion in the family and probably one reason the rest of us love it so. But we won't settle for just any soft-serve: It has to be Dairy Queen's. That's the Texas way. When my expatriate siblings call to plan a visit home to Texas, they always say, "Can we stop at a Dairy Queen?" (The question is strictly rhetorical—it's like asking, "Does that corn dog come on a stick?") The chain is a small-town fixture, like a porch swing or a courthouse square; folklore has it that any town with two water towers will boast a Dairy Queen. A DQ stop was always the crowning moment of a Sunday drive and a welcome break on a long haul to visit kinfolk. The last time I saw my beloved Aunt Maxie before she died, we ate lunch at the Big Spring DQ. She had tacos. I had a dipped cone.
Texans have had a soft spot for DQ's soft-serve for more than half a century. But—brace yourself—Dairy Queen isn't native to Texas. The business started in Illinois and now has 5,700 outlets, including 200-plus stores overseas in places like Cyprus and Qatar. Texans so identify with Dairy Queen, though, that the state has its own DQ HQ as well as a different menu and customized advertising campaigns. But despite its status as a Texas institution, the number of outlets in the state has fallen from a high of 1,008 in 1980 to some 650 today. Last year DQs closed in Dimmitt, Quanah, and other small towns, and in January a Fort Worth company that ran 35 stores filed for bankruptcy. Nonetheless, Dairy Queen is still firmly ensconced as a part of Texan—and American—pop culture, a symbol of small-town innocence that has made guest appearances in everything from a literary best-seller to gay performance art.
Dairy Queen also has an urban presence: Houston, for example, has 29. But who cares? In a big city, it's just another purveyor of deep-fried fare and gooey desserts (such as the Blizzard, a sort of milkshake with crumbled Oreos or the like mixed in). An authentic Texas DQ is doggedly rural; there are tractors in the parking lot and overalled farmers in the booths. In a celebrated Texas Observer article about questionable drug busts in Tulia, writer Nate Blakeslee referred to the Panhandle hamlet as "so small it doesn't even have a Dairy Queen." And country singer Lee Ann Womack once called Jacksonville, whose population was about 12,000 when she grew up there in the eighties, "a two-Dairy Queen town."
DQs, as Larry McMurtry noted in his acclaimed collection of essays Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, "combined the functions of tavern, cafe, and general store; they were simple roadhouses where both rambling men and stay-at-homes could meet." In Wills Point a group of widows meets often to sip coffee and play the card game Skip-Bo. Even out-of-staters recognize the importance of the DQ as grapevine central. In 1993 the national media seized on a story about four Hempstead High School cheerleaders who had gotten pregnant and been dismissed from the squad. A New York talk-show producer tracked down a member of one cheerleader's family simply by phoning the local Dairy Queen.
Jason Anderson, the Dallas-based executive producer of the TV show Texas Country Reporter, estimates that he and the show's star, Bob Phillips, have visited at least two hundred Dairy Queens. His favorite story about the chain involves stopping one morning in a town (which he kindly declines to identify) where the DQ sported a sign that read, "Open for Breakfast." Walking in, they saw only the usual menu posted above the counter, so Anderson asked the waitress about breakfast fare. "We don't serve breakfast," she replied. Puzzled, he said, "But the sign says 'Open for Breakfast.'" And the woman explained patiently, "Honey, we're open for breakfast, but we don't serve breakfast."
DQ got its start in Moline, Illinois, in 1938, when a father and son named McCullough invented the first soft-ice-cream machine, which proved faster and easier than old-fashioned hand-scooping, and formed a company they called Dairy Queen. But it was a Missouri businessman, O. W. Klose, who ended up with the exclusive rights to sell their product in Texas. In 1946 Klose opened the state's first DQ, on Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas campus in Austin (and where, I'd like to know, is the historical marker?). He and his son, Rolly, personally loaned money to scores of wannabe restaurateurs, often scribbling the contract on a napkin. Dairy Queen spread slowly across the state, gradually pushing out local burger joints like Pampa's Lotaburger.
The spirit of the Klose family lives on in Texas Dairy Queen executives today. It was never more apparent than in January, when the NBA slapped Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban with a $500,000 fine for saying of a certain NBA official, "I wouldn't hire him to manage a Dairy Queen." Parrish Chapman, a DQ honcho based in Amarillo, didn't take offense, he took action—inviting Cuban to work the lunch shift at a DQ he runs in Coppell. Cuban agreed, and both firebrand and name brand garnered positive publicity. The incident delighted the chain's international headquarters as well: One executive termed it "the best thing to happen to Dairy Queen since the invention of the Blizzard."
The Cuban incident pointed up the differences between the cookie-cutter Dairy Queens across the U.S. and the homey individual ones here in Texas. Most of the former employ, as decor, large color posters of the aforementioned Blizzard or the unsung Buster Bar, but in Texas anything goes, from the replica of one of Roy Orbison's gold records that graces the Kermit DQ to the stellar collection of framed arrowheads in Nocona's. The ad campaigns are Texified—Nolan Ryan was once a spokesman; the "Texas Stop Sign" slogan is a classic—and the menu is different too. Non-Texas