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Cold Comfort

For road-weary Texans the nostalgic pull of Dairy Queen is strong—and its soft-serve ice cream as delicious as ever.

By May 2002Comments

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 DQ’s feature basic burgers, hot dogs, and even something they consider barbecue. But only in Texas can a customer buy a Hungr-Buster or a Beltbuster—trademarked names, in a bigger-is-better state, for big and bigger burgers. Texas’ love of chicken-fried steak led to the creation of the Dude, a CFS sandwich. Another specifically Texan dish is the Steak Finger Country Basket; naturally, it includes a nice greasy slab of Texas toast. DQs here religiously observe regional food preferences; as God intended, burgers are served with mustard, and soft drinks with crushed ice. You’re likely to find beverages such as vanilla Cokes and salt-of-the-earth specials like Olney’s $1.99 all-you-can-eat Wednesday bean supper. (Noisy town on Thursdays, Olney.)

With all that down-home, grassroots, just-folks charm, DQ was bound for glory—destined to be immortalized in print, film, and song. In fact, you can fix the date of its cultural canonization as 1999, when McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen was published. The book is a series of autobiographical essays whose topics the Pulitzer prize-winning author first mulled over, aided by hits of lime Dr Pepper, at the DQ in Archer City, his hometown. The title refers to the German writer and social critic, and in the book McMurtry—in some ways our own Walter Benjamin—reflects on the essential role of the DQ in Texas life. McMurtry’s fame and standing instantly validated Dairy Queen, elevating it from simple gathering spot to golden icon.

Walter Benjamin wasn’t DQ’s first literary appearance. S.E. Hinton’s young-adult classic The Outsiders (1967) included a Dairy Queen scene. McMurtry himself had earlier tipped his hat to DQ in a sequel to The Last Picture Show; in 1987’s Texasville, the Dairy Queen has replaced the pool hall as the local hangout for Duane, Lester, and the rest of the Thalia gang. Since the early nineties, writers and musicians have paid homage to DQ: North Carolina’s Robert Inman titled a book Dairy Queen Days while Bob Greene of the Chicago Tribune dubbed one Chevrolet Summers and Dairy Queen Nights; musical groups including Clem Snide, the Dwarves, and Cooder Graw wrote songs about Dairy Queen; and San Antonio actor-dramatist Paul Bonin-Rodriguez wrote a one-act play called Talk of the Town, featuring a gay teen whose stint at a DQ leads him to confront love, lust, and Lady Bird Johnson.

DQ also figures in many a movie: Adventures in Babysitting, Nurse Betty, and Slacker, to name a few. Its finest cinematic moment occurred in Waiting for Guffman (1996), a comedy filmed in Lockhart. Parker Posey, playing an aspiring actress named Libby Mae Brown, nails the counter-girl persona, all soft-serve brain and undeniable sweetness: “I’ve been working here at the DQ for about eight months, seven, I don’t know, something like that. It’s fun. Just do the cones, make sundaes, make Blizzards and put stuff on ’em and see a lot of people come in. Burgers, ice cream, anything, you know—Cokes, just drive in and get a Coke if you’re thirsty.”

Naturally, most of the comedy and drama about Texas DQs is offscreen. In Lockhart in the seventies local teens attempted to set a world record for the most circles driven around a Dairy Queen (the owner promptly installed speed bumps). In Karnes City in 1985 a group of UT frat boys chased out the cashier and cook and took over the kitchen; after making themselves lunch, they hit the road again, but the sheriff tracked them down. And in 1976 a young blond waitress named Vickie Carroll shocked Texas’ political elite by marrying Price Daniel, Jr., a former Speaker of the Texas House. Five years later she shocked them even more by shooting him dead in the kitchen of their Liberty home. But what else would you expect, murmured the town’s matrons, from someone who used to work at a Dairy Queen?

Throughout good times and bad, and despite the occasional pesky modern encroachment—vandalism by animal rights activists at Comfort’s DQ, an ATM installed in Brady’s—the chain continues to dish up good food, good times, and great gossip. Its business base may have melted a bit, but millions of Texans are still sweet on Dairy Queen. As Libby Mae Brown puts it, reflecting on the sudden end of her brief acting career: “Guess I could just go back to the Dairy Queen, you know.…I’ll always have a place at the Dairy Queen.”

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