Mmmm, Tastes Like America
Sno-balls in sweaty New Orleans. Fudge cake on the Outer Banks. Spicy fruit on a Los Angeles street corner. This is what an American summer tastes like.,
Mmmm, Tastes Like America
Sno-balls in sweaty New Orleans. Fudge cake on the Outer Banks. Spicy fruit on a Los Angeles street corner. This is what an American summer tastes like.
Credit…Cole Wilson for The New York Times
The Blizzard was an instant hit when Dairy Queen introduced it in 1985. “Dairy Queen’s Blizzard Is Hot,” The New York Times reported the next year, crediting the delicacy with boosting the company’s stock price and sales of mix-ins, like Heath bars.
Within just a few years, the Blizzard was “hot” in my Wheaton, Ill., household, too. Our house didn’t have air-conditioning, and on especially suffocating evenings, my family would walk to the nearby Dairy Queen after dinner to cool off. It was a no-frills location: open only in the summer, no burgers or fries, service through a window. My sister and I always ordered the same thing: small Blizzards studded with sour-sweet Nerds candy. When the teenager at the counter called out “Two small Nerds!” to the workers in back, my mom joked, “Hey, those are my kids you’re talking about.”
Essentially an extra-thick milkshake swirled with crushed candy or cookies, the Blizzard is a simple concept enhanced by showmanship. Traditionally, an employee briefly flips the cup upside-down as she hands it over the counter, a flourish intended to prove its thickness. (I got a mild thrill a few years ago when I saw a Blizzard fail this test, slopping spectacularly onto an indoor table at a New Hampshire DQ. Call it — forgive me — schadenfrozen.)
Dairy Queen discontinued the Nerds variety years ago to make room for other trendy flavors — at the moment, options include Girl Scouts Thin Mints and cotton candy. I’ve moved on happily enough to other selections, although a boyfriend once gave me a home Blizzard maker and a large box of Nerds so I could recreate a Proustian pleasure. The janky plastic machine couldn’t quite deliver but, reader, I married him.
This, perhaps, is the true power of the summer treat. It transcends its own amalgam of flavors — some fresh and wholesome, others cheap and chemical — and embodies all the joys of the season itself: heat, indulgence, late sunsets, fireflies, freedom.
With that in mind, The Times asked its correspondents all over the United States to send in dispatches about their own beloved tastes of summer. They sent in odes to fresh mango, BLTs, cold noodles and myriad combinations of ice and sugar. Here’s to a summer of new flavors and old comforts.
Cheap burgers and cheese curds
All winter long, the parking lot of the Big Star drive-in — blocks from icy Lake Michigan in Kenosha, Wis. — is empty and desolate. Come spring, good luck finding a spot. Locals have been crazy about this place since it was established in the 1950s and still arrive in droves, eating diner-style burgers, frosty root beer and fried cheese curds, served on plastic trays balanced on the car window. The food is shockingly cheap (cheeseburgers are $1.75) and the summery vibe is strong, especially on Tuesday nights when bicycle races are happening at a velodrome across the street, one of the country’s oldest. The fun ends on Labor Day, when Big Star goes into hibernation for the Wisconsin winter.
— Julie Bosman
BLTs in the woods
My childhood summers were spent in the woods of New Hampshire, on a pond devoid of the standard entertainments of preteen America. We had Chinese checkers and Risk, which no one played, and a shelf full of espionage thrillers with die-cut covers and content inappropriate for children. Most of the time we were the only kids there. If our parents had put their heads together in 1971 to devise a scheme for delaying until the last possible moment our loss of virginity, they could not have come up with anything better.
But the food! At the cabin we ate bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Toasted white bread (for this, we were allowed white bread) slathered with mayonnaise, with slabs of farm-stand tomatoes and lettuce both tender and crisp that still tasted, every so slightly, of the ground. The bacon was allowed to drip onto the bread, and then the slices were pressed together firmly enough to ensure their structural integrity for the 45 seconds it took to eat them.
We ate our sandwiches on the porch, to the sound of the slamming screen door, with tall, cold-fogged glasses of root beer. There was always sand on our feet, and our mother always complained, in a way that made it clear that she really didn’t care. If constructed properly, the sandwiches were juicy and crunchy, and the afternoon stretched out ahead of you, first the hammock, then the raft, then the walk in flip-flops to the center store. You could make bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches at home, eight hours and 400 miles of turnpike away, but they were never the same.
— Ellen Barry
Eye-watering waves of spice
On hot days growing up in Pullman, Wash., I would ask my mom to make naengmyeon — Korean cold noodles. She crowned chewy buckwheat with boiled egg, mustard and fresh Asian pear. Around it, she poured a moat of broth and vinegar, with ice floating and cracking just below the surface. The result was creamy, beefy, sour and crisply sweet, with waves of spice that made my eyes water. I always requested a second helping.
— Danielle Ivory
Mangoes and thunderstorms
Mangoes in Miami ripen right around the time that afternoon thunderstorms begin, portending the start of summer. Some years, the trees yield so much velvety sweet fruit that neighbors leave extras in boxes outside. Take a mango, leave a dollar or two. Blend, add ice and rum — and drink to getting through another hurricane season.
— Patricia Mazzei
Melons ‘like sugar’
My grandfather was, as my father puts it, a “maniac for melons.”
Honeydew, casaba, cantaloupe. He grew them from seeds that spiraled miraculously into vines in his backyard garden on the South Shore of Long Island, building elaborate contraptions to nurture them and defend against predators.
Who knows where he got the taste for them? The son of Russian Jewish emigres, he dropped out of school at age 13 to help support his family, selling suits and then stocks. During the summer months that my family spent at his and my grandmother’s home on Long Island, he would spend the workweek at their apartment in Queens.
But the first thing he did upon arriving late on Friday night was tromp to the garden with a flashlight for a look at his melons, and the first thing we ate at our Saturday meal together was a slice of the one he had selected as the ripest. Shades of orange or pastel green, they looked like ice cream sherbet but, somehow, we were allowed to eat them as an appetizer. Always, we would be in suspense as we awaited the first bite.
Sometimes, the melons disappointed. But when they were flavorful, my grandfather’s eyes lit up and a triumphant smile spread across his face. “Like sugar,” he would declare, though sometimes my grandmother beat him to it.
My grandfather’s garden is long gone. But the lessons of life’s fleeting sweetness that he may have been trying to impart to his only granddaughter remain — for me, and maybe for everyone — in every melon slice of every summer.
— Amy Harmon
Summer on the corner
Dairy Corner in Newtown, Ohio, is an all-time Cincinnati summer classic from my childhood. Tiny stand. Cash only. Get your cone (twist with chocolate dip!). Pop your trunk. Sit in the back with friends and enjoy summer on the corner!
— Elizabeth Dias
Summer of nuts, winter of nocino
California has so many summers. The frozen banana summers of Orange County. The heirloom tomato summers of Sacramento. The Dodger Dog summers of L.A. But my favorite, this year, is the summer of the vast California nut groves, the star of which is the deep, sweet, mysterious walnut liqueur nocino.
Nocino is actually Italian, but it has become a California thing as nuts have become a thing in the Golden State’s ag land. And summer isn’t when it is drunk. Summer is when it is made.
Our friend Patrick Mulvaney, who owns a restaurant, starts with a drive out to a 100-year-old walnut ranch in Sutter County. Our friends Dan and Claudia Morain walk into their backyard, in a former walnut orchard in Davis. They pick a big bag of green walnuts and wash and quarter a few dozen. They do it now, between May 24 and June 24, the Feast of St. John the Baptist, before the shells harden, and wear gloves as they work, because walnuts stain.
Patrick goes by the Italian Rule of 24 — steep about 24 quartered nuts for 24 days in neutral spirits, strain and age for 24 months before drinking. Claudia soaks 30 quartered nuts in 750 milliliters of 100-proof vodka for six weeks in a one-quart glass jar, then strains out the nuts, adds five whole cloves, a cinnamon stick and two cups of sugar, covers the jar and puts it away until Christmas. When ready, it looks like motor oil and smells heavenly.
— Shawn Hubler
Glorious fruit, with a kick
Don’t think that the ubiquity of fresh fruit vendors in Los Angeles makes them any less special. Mango, watermelon, cucumber, jicama, pineapple and coconut are piled high into a glass case, atop a giant block of ice to keep them cool. The vendor cuts the fruits you want, leaves out the ones you don’t. Watching her expertly wield a giant knife over small fruit is part of the joy. She hands it all over in a giant unadorned plastic cup. Too big as a snack for one, it’s a summer meal, and it is incomplete without a generous dusting of Tajin, the chile-lime-salt mix that threatens to stain your shirt and fingers a shade of crimson. This fruit is meant to be a little sloppy, slurped as much as eaten. Lap up the juices pooled at the bottom. Come back for more the next day — this passes for healthy in the summer.
— Jennifer Medina
A different island delicacy
I grew up with fudge pie, a Southern delicacy. Then, one hot afternoon on the barrier islands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, I discovered its delicious cake equivalent at Darrell’s Seafood Restaurant in Manteo. Soft yellow cake, vanilla ice cream, glistening hot fudge, whipped cream and one fire-engine-red cherry. It’s hard to beat a sugary slice of Americana for less than the toll you might pay to cross a bridge to the Outer Banks in the first place.
— Alan Blinder
The filet mignon of fish
Fish doesn’t often get carried down a red carpet after being delivered in a 737. But most fish isn’t Copper River salmon, whose annual arrival has become something of a signpost that Seattle’s dreary months might finally start to give way.
The fish arrived a week ago, to be kissed by a local TV reporter. By Saturday, the acclaimed local chef Tom Douglas was working in clouds of applewood smoke, grilling waves of fillets covered in a fennel-and-garlic rub as part of a fund-raiser.
The salmon’s arrival has been a local phenomenon for decades, he said. As the first catch of the Alaska salmon season, it is shipped immediately to high-end Pacific Northwest restaurants and places like Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, where it can fetch $75 per pound.
The bright fillets are fattier than many others, owing to the need for the fish to store up energy ahead of a particularly long haul up the Copper River. Mr. Douglas said the fish had been elevated as part of a larger effort to highlight the benefits of wild-caught fish instead of farmed alternatives.
As he finished cooking up 200 portions over the weekend, Mr. Douglas noticed a scrap remaining on the grill and popped it into his mouth. “There’s no reason in the world why this fish shouldn’t cost as much, or more, than a filet mignon,” the chef said. “It’s perfect.”
— Mike Baker
A magical ice cream oasis
It doesn’t look like much. That’s how you know it’s good.
At the corner of East Carson Street and Becks Run Road in Pittsburgh, in the shadow of a concrete underpass, sits an unassuming square building that, for half of the year, resembles a boarded-up shack. The other half of the year, it transforms into a magical ice cream oasis. At Page Dairy Mart, a Pittsburgh staple that recently celebrated its 70th season, soft serve is the delicacy of choice. But like other mom-and-pop shops in former industrial towns throughout the Great Lakes, what makes Page’s ice cream truly, quintessentially summer is that you have earned it — through both perseverance and a bit of boredom.
There are all sorts of delicious ice creams out there. Texas has Blue Bell, served in grocery stores year round. In New York City, you can get a cone that is both mouthwatering and hip from, say, Big Gay Ice Cream, one of many food and entertainment options at your fingertips in the city that never sleeps.
But nothing quite spells summer like making it through an icy, gray winter in Pittsburgh and seeing the neon lights turn on at Page’s: You have made it. A stop at Page’s isn’t something to be hurried, or tacked onto a busy social calendar. It is the main event. The days are getting longer and the nights are getting warmer and you have nothing else to do, so you go. You order a twist cone with sprinkles, and it melts faster than you can lick it, and you go home and watch the Pirates lose on TV, and soon, the lightning bugs will be blinking in the night sky. Summer has arrived.
— Sarah Mervosh
Red, white and blue
When our Brooklyn playground is steaming hot, my 3-year-old’s favorite relief is a paper cup of sticky, dripping Italian Ice. A friendly lady sells it out of a hand cart, announcing her arrival by sounding a squeezable air horn. Talia’s favorite flavor is rainbow, a swirl of red, white and blue that to me tastes cloyingly, indiscriminately sweet. But Talia loves it. “It’s so beautiful,” she explained.
— Dana Goldstein
A sticky, sweet mess
Nothing says summer in South Texas like triple-digit temperatures and pop-up raspa stands selling shaved ice treats. When we were kids, we’d wait until the last moment to choose from among the classic flavors: red, green, blue or purple. The only way to eat them is fast, but even then, you’re sure to end up with sticky syrup all over your hands, lips and chin.
— Jamie Stockwell
Nectar? That’s a flavor?
New Orleans in the summertime is like a 78 r.p.m. record played on 33. A city that never moves very quickly, even when the weather is crisp, becomes the meteorological equivalent of the less-spirited works of Sunn O))).
You wake up in the morning and it’s like you swallowed an entire package of Dramamine. Your tongue feels like a grapefruit, and you sweat. You sweat in your sleep and sweat in your car. You start sweating as soon as you get out of the shower.
There is no real defense for the assault of the 90-degree heat and punishing humidity. Except for the ubiquitous sno-ball stands.
The best come from Williams Plum St. Snowballs, a modest walk-up storefront on a shady residential side street that sets itself apart by serving the fluffy machine-made snow and goopy syrup in Chinese food boxes, rather than cups, for reasons that have bewildered New Orleanians for decades.
It was at Plum Street, as a kid who arrived in town at the age of 10, that I learned that strawberry and grape were noob moves. The discerning experts chose exotic “cream” flavors, chief of which was the baffling “nectar.” The SnoWizard company, purveyor of sno-ball products, calls it a “creamy vanilla-almond flavor with faint peach overtones.”
It’s tempting to call the syrup unnaturally pale pink, but the color does in fact appear in nature. You might have seen it on the exposed backsides of certain tree-dwelling primates.
— Richard Fausset