Editor's Letter: Queen City Cool

Revisiting a few local ice cream institutions, plus highlights from the past week

Hi there, Midwesterners. I’m Midwesterner editor Jed Portman. This is my free weekly editor’s letter, a supplement to the work from paid contributors that we send to subscribers at 8 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. If you like what you see here, or if even you don’t like my writing but you think our contributors sound interesting, please consider signing up for a monthly or annual subscription. Your subscription dollars go to our writers, paid promptly and fairly to tell their stories. We rely on you! For more information, go to Midwesterner.org.

I grew up in an ice cream capital. Every city has its parlors, but when I was a kid in Cincinnati, three omnipresent local producers seemed as big as Häagen-Dazs: United Dairy Farmers, Aglamesis Brothers, and Graeter’s.

Each has a different selling point. Reading Josh Modell’s piece about Kopp’s yesterday, I thought of UDF. When Josh was ten, he was calling Kopp’s to get the flavor of the day, and when I was ten, I was riding my bike to the closest of UDF’s 210 locations in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, orbiting the company’s headquarters in Cincinnati, with just enough money in my pocket to buy a milkshake and a bag of Corn Nuts.

It isn’t an ice cream parlor, but a chain of convenience stores and gas stations that also sells high-quality, scooped-to-order ice cream, a testament to its beginnings as a dairy store seventy-five years ago. Around here, you’re never far from an opportunity pick up a chocolate malt, or my fall favorite, a black walnut malt, while you fill your gas tank. (You might have to ask about the black walnut ice cream, which, per the team at my local store, has enough fans to stay in rotation but not so many that it’s always on display.)

I can’t be the only Cincinnatian who associates convenience stores with ice cream because of UDF. We have standard-issue quick-stops in the Queen City, too, but I felt uneasy when I moved to Montana and discovered that every single gas station ran like a Speedway. No rainbow of ice cream flavors under glass, no parlor-style tables, no friendly scoopers in white shirts. Just gas, gum, and cigarettes. It was like they’d taken all the rides out of Kings Island.

At the other extreme of the Cincinnati ice cream scene, you’ll find the throwback delights of Aglamesis Brothers. Aglamesis sells pink-and-black-striped pints in our local supermarkets, but the company’s main attraction is its 1913 flagship parlor in Oakley Square. It’s a pre-World War I time capsule, seemingly untouched in 107 years, with a tin ceiling, a tile floor, marble-topped tables, silvery ice cream dishes, and art-glass lamps from Tiffany’s.

The ice cream is particularly sweet, the sundaes come piled high, and the chocolates and other confectionary treats are some of the best in the city. Even as a sugar-rushing kid and a jaded teenager, I felt the magic of a space where, while eating a Banana Superb sundae, you feel like you could be sitting side-by-side with your great-great-grandparents, listening to them worry out loud about what will become of the nation now that hometown politician William Howard Taft has left the White House.

If outsiders know Cincinnati ice cream at all, though, it’s probably because of Graeter’s.

Graeter’s is a century-and-a-half-old family business. Its founder, Louis C. Graeter, began selling ice cream in 1870, but the company earned its reputation for quality after Louis died in a streetcar accident in 1919, leaving it to his third wife, Regina.

A rare female executive in 1920s Cincinnati, Regina insisted on continuing to make ice cream the way the family had for decades—in French pots, two-and-a-half gallons at a time—as the rest of the industry shifted to cheaper, easier, and more efficient methods. The family called her “The Boss.” A century later, Graeter’s still makes its ice cream Regina’s way. (Company officials say that they don’t know of any other commercial ice cream manufacturer in the world still using French pots.)

For years, it was the ultimate host gift. You could always make a good impression with a cooler packed full of dry ice and pints of butter pecan and black raspberry chip, especially if your host already knew the joys of the ultra-rich custard base and bittersweet chocolate chunks as large as fun-sized candy bars. It was a special delivery from Cincinnati, like peaches from Georgia or maple syrup from Vermont. Then, someone sent one of those coolers to Oprah.

She isn’t the reason for our favorite hometown ice cream’s rapid spread across the country over the past couple of decades, but she set the tone for what came next when she called it “absolutely the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted” on her show in 2002. Orders surged. The nation took notice. “I was floored. I couldn’t have scripted it any better myself,” Richard Graeter told the New York Post. (The same year, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s praised their chocolate chip ice cream, “loaded with gobs, and I mean gobs, of little tiny [sic] grated chocolate pieces,” in USA Today.)

But the credit—or blame—truly belongs to an ambitious fourth generation of Graeters, who were investing in substantial growth even before the endorsement from Oprah. Because of them, you can now find the company’s most popular flavors in supermarket freezers in forty-six states, and we Cincinnatians now have to share our signature dessert. Pick up a pint of the black raspberry chip, says this lifelong fan, so beloved here that news outlets reported on the possibility of a shortage in 2019.

I bet any Cincinnatian could choose a favorite local ice cream if necessary, and, based on sales and prestige, I bet the choice would be Graeter’s. But many of us see the appeal in all three major options. My brother has always insisted that the best shakes and malts come from UDF. After a year of tasting, I agree. I wouldn’t go for a malt at Graeter’s. But then, we don’t usually buy pints at UDF. And if we’re judging based on experience and atmosphere, pre-shelter-in-place, neither compares to Aglamesis.

All elicit the same sweet, nostalgic memories as Kopp’s Frozen Custard does for many Milwaukeeans. So I’ll end on that conciliatory note, without touching on more contentious local rivalries—East Side versus West Side, UC versus Xavier, the ongoing chili wars between Skyline and Gold Star... To understand all that, anyway, unlike the pleasures of Graeter’s, you probably have to be a Cincinnatian.

What we’ve published in the last week:

As always, if you have any questions, comments, concerns, suggestions, or thoughts on the frozen desserts that you ate growing up, please e-mail me: jed@midwesterner.org. I’d love to hear from you.