On Location: Frozen custard and Lady Superior

On Location: Frozen custard and Lady Superior

The setting of Lady Superior blends the fact and fiction of Milwaukee. Lady Superior is, of course, set in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I try to represent the city to the best of my ability and avoid straying too hard from the essence of what makes Milwaukee Milwaukee. Many of the locations used in the series are fictional, of course, but I don’t create those locations in a void. The locations should feel appropriate for the sort of city they’re in—or the neighborhood I’ve described. Someone reading my book who is familiar with Milwaukee, even as familiar with the city as I am, should have a hard time discerning what’s real and what isn’t.

Though many locations are fictional, many of them are quite real, too. This is the first in what I hope to be a series of blog posts exploring some of those very real places which have appeared in Lady Superior thus far. In this installment, we’re going for a softball: Kopp’s Frozen Custard.

In Lady Superior, Templar Jane Miller continues trying to recruit fledgling superhero Kristen Anderson over frozen custard. Jane and Kristen sit together alongside a waterfall within walled outdoor seating. If you’re in Milwaukee, or ever visit the city, you can sit exactly where they did.

Kopp’s Frozen Custard is a summer standby on Milwaukee’s South Side, located in the neighboring city of Greenfield. To provide some context, Greenfield both is and is not part of Milwaukee. It isn’t in the City of Milwaukee, but it is within Milwaukee County and considered a part of Milwaukee’s metropolitan area. Kopp’s is only a few blocks away from Southridge Mall, but Southridge isn’t in the City of Milwaukee or the City of Greenfield, but rather the Village of Greendale. Despite Southridge Mall being in Greendale, it’s still considered (and called) the largest mall in Milwaukee.

It’s all a bit fuzzy, and ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. If you live in Milwaukee, you’re more likely to consider Greenfield, Greendale, and other surrounding cities and villages more like suburban neighborhoods of Milwaukee than anything else. Their distinction from the City of Milwaukee only ever comes into play in government.

Kopp’s isn’t just an ice cream joint. First, if you call it ice cream, you’re so wrong it hurts, but we’ll loop back to that shortly. Kopp’s is also a burger joint, serving up the Midwestern delicacy we call the butter burger. If you’ve been to a Culver’s somewhere out there in the rest of the United States, you’ve had the fast food version of the real thing, which is close enough in my book. If you’re completely unfamiliar with the concept, butter burgers are hamburgers (or cheeseburgers) where the bun has been buttered and slapped on the grill to fry up a little. Alternatively, a pat of butter is plopped right on top of the cooked burger patty before it’s served. If it’s made right, you won’t need any other condiments. Ketchup, mustard, whatever you put on your burger—you don’t really need it. The butter (and the meat) make the bun as moist as it needs to be and you get a juicy, flavorful hamburger.

Image Source: Serious Eats

This isn’t a Chicago-style Hot Dog situation, though. There are no rules. You can add condiments if you really want them. But with the butter burger, you don’t need them.

The primary reason people go to Kopp’s is the frozen custard, though, and not the burgers. Milwaukee is frozen custard country. You keep ice cream in your freezer, but if you’re going out for ice cream, you’re probably going for custard. What is frozen custard? I’ll allow Edible Milwaukee to explain:

[…]frozen custard is not ice cream. The FDA requires custard to contain at least 10% butterfat and 1.4% egg yolks. That small percentage of yolk might not sound like much, but most ice creams contain less than one egg and some none at all because eggs are costly and require special handling in production. The yolks are crucial to custard’s satiny rich body and creamier finish.

The most vital element, though, may be what custard does not contain: air. The monstrous metallic machines used to make custard – known to fans as “iron lungs” – churn at a stately pace that introduces little air, or “overrun” as the percentage of air is called, into the mixture, so the finished custard that extrudes from the machine is dense and thick. Spoons stand at attention in a bowl of custard. In contrast, many commercial ice cream makers whip lots of air, as much as 100%, into their product for volume and texture. So a finished pint or half gallon may contain nearly as much air as ice cream.

Frozen custard is dense, smooth, and silky. When you get custard from your favorite custard stand, you can turn a spoonful upside down and it’ll stick. (Until it melts, obviously.) Small mouthfuls are full of flavor. You never get that distinctly icy taste. When you’re accustomed to ice cream, you probably don’t notice the taste of plain ice in there—but once you’ve had frozen custard, you’ll notice it when you go back to ice cream. Frozen custard certainly isn’t exclusive to Milwaukee or Wisconsin, but in Milwaukee, you’re far more likely to find a custard stand than an ice cream stand.

Another bonus of frozen custard stands is they usually keep the machines making the custard in plain view of the customer. There’s something delightful about watching a frozen custard machine shit its brains out.

Mmm. Vanilla.

In Lady Superior, Kristen tries to decipher the Kopp’s Flavor of the Day when choosing her ice cream. Yes, this is a thing. Kopp’s has a monthly Flavor Forecast. They have a flavor of the month, but a flavor of the day each and every day, too. Today, as I write this on February 17, their flavor of the day is Grasshopper Fudge, a sundae based on the Grasshopper cocktail.

If you keep up on the news, it’s entirely possible you’ve already heard of Kopp’s Frozen Custard. Back in 2010, Vice President Joe Biden called the manager a smartass. That isn’t the first time a major political figure pulled a Milwaukee custard stand into the headlines, either. Bill Clinton once paid a visit to the old school neon-clad Leon’s Frozen Custard. The media mocked him for ordering vanilla because apparently they had nothing better to do that day. It’s not like he had a lot of options. Monday through Friday, Leon’s only serves vanilla, chocolate, and butter pecan.

If you ever visit Milwaukee, Kopp’s is worth a stop. Hell, Leon’s is worth a stop, too. If you visit Kopp’s, go ahead and get yourself a burger with your custard—plus a jug of Sprecher’s Root Beer to go. If you visit Leon’s, I’d really recommend you stick to the custard and grab a burger elsewhere. Don’t tell either of them Lady Superior sent you. They won’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

(Header image courtesy of Kent Wang under Creative Commons.)


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