A Minnesotan’s Ice Cream Life Story

From childhood to the present, told scoop by scoop
An illustration of a girl eating an ice cream cone.
Illustration by Lars Leetaru

Can it be true that in 1980s Minneapolis there existed a Tom Thumb corner store in Linden Hills that sold ice cream cones for a quarter? It seems wildly far-fetched for a neighborhood now known for champagne-and-oysters brunches that cost a small fortune.

Indeed, 25 cents was the going rate for a giant scoop, roughly the size of a Wiffle ball, piled high on a cake or sugar cone. (Pity the fool who asked for a waffle cone at Tom Thumb.)

The sheer dimensions of these mammoth treats required a delicate balancing act when exiting the store. One high school-aged cashier named Tuan took special delight in constructing cones for neighborhood kids so precariously huge they threatened, on handoff, to collapse.

Once I reached high school, I scooped sundaes and mastered the malt machine at a neighborhood ice cream café. One July day, my dentist—a rather debonair gentleman I’d known since baby teeth—came in and ordered cones for himself and his kids. This was mind-blowing information. When you’re 15, it’s hard to imagine your dentist taking off that white coat and living a life of such mundane joys as a double cone with sprinkles, or procreation, for that matter.

“You’re probably shocked to catch your dentist red-handed, buying his kids something sweet,” he joked. “But a life without ice cream is no life.”

It’s no summer, either. What’s the first thing you do as a kid with a freshly minted driver’s license in the heat of the season? Go for a drive to get ice cream. Invite your siblings to tag along, and you can lord it over them much later when you need a favor, like free babysitting.

When the Tom Thumb closed, we defected to soft serve. To my youngest sister, our ungainly Buick station wagon came to represent not so much a practical method of transportation as a vessel that bridged the time-space continuum between our house and the Dairy Queen.

If the first ice cream cone of summer inaugurates the season, a trip to the Minnesota State Fair Dairy Building is its grand finale. For many of us, this pilgrimage remains an annual ritual: Pay homage to the glistening butter sculptures competing to be crowned Princess Kay of the Milky Way, then line up with the masses at the Midwest Dairy Association’s Dairy Goodness Bar. There’s something quaintly old-fashioned and almost spiritual about hundreds of Minnesotans (and a few Wisconsinites, sheepishly committing dairy-related treason) all waiting politely in line for rhubarb-strawberry sundaes, twist cones, and $2 cups of milk.

As kids, it was tradition for us to indulge in frozen treats from the Dairy Building at midday and the Kiwanis Malt Stand as a farewell hurrah after hitting the adjacent Fine Arts building. When I took my 1-year-old son to the State Fair a few summers ago, this dual loyalty presented a dilemma. Which would be his first taste of ice cream: a Kiwanis malt or a Dairy Building sundae?

With all due respect to the Dairy Building and its butter princesses, the Kiwanis Club won. I pushed my son’s stroller to the wood-paneled stand, and then hesitated: strawberry or vanilla? (My arbitrary adult preferences had already decided against chocolate.)

As I lifted the long plastic spoon of strawberry malt to his lips, it seemed like a historic culinary moment. Life is hard, yes, and my little boy would grow up and get his heart broken and inevitably suffer. But there was the State Fair, and there was ice cream.

He took his first bite, eyes growing huge. Cold, sweet, smooth, rich—a glimmer of appreciation for the world’s strange, delicious wonders. Then he reached, hand outstretched, for the spoon.

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