Between Dairy Queen and Dari King

This and dozens of other essays are compiled in the book Between: Living Live in Neither Extreme. Check it out!

In my childhood hometown there is a Dairy Queen. And there is a Dari King. Both are wonderful burger and milkshake joints, and both are situated on the main highway in town just one stoplight apart. Are you now imagining a cartoon queen and king, each presiding over a little rural Minnesota ice cream kingdom, but perhaps lamenting the amicable divorce wherein he got the local flavor and she got the intellectual property rights to the correct spelling of the word “dairy?” Me too.

I spent a good part of my adolescence getting milkshakes and barbecues at the Dari King every summer. And, true fact: the only time I ever skipped school was for one hour of English class so we could get shakes at the Dari King. It was the English class where I, as school paper editor, got to work on one of the two Macintosh computers that were housed in the bowels of the high school basement industrial arts wing. Editorial done and no teacher in sight = let’s all go get ice cream since it’s May and above 43 degrees finally!

But I had to get a job to pay for my delinquent milkshake habit.

So, I also spent a good part of my adolescence flipping burgers, perfecting the curly cue on top of a soft serve ice cream cone (I’ve still got it!), and making accidental odd-ingredient Blizzards to eat during my breaks at the Dairy Queen. Mmmm, Butterfinger, maraschino cherries, and mint sauce. It paid the bills. And by bills I mean more Blizzards, acid wash jeans, and an occasional movie ticket.

My co-workers and I even came up with product-themed nicknames for ourselves, suggesting that I enjoyed my time as a DQ employee. Mike Malt. Michelle Milk. Kurt Cone. Lisa Lettuce. Tami Tomato. Phyllis Float. DonLee Ultimate Sauce. And my favorite: Audra Water.

Here’s the big secret: I worked at the DQ even though I liked the food at the Dari King just a little bit better.

But even now, I love DQ food. Nothing about it grossed me out then. Nothing about it grosses me out now. Except when my son spills ice cream in the car and then it stinks for three weeks.

One of the tenets of the sociological term “McDonaldization” is that more and more parts of our (food) world are becoming automated, predictable, and quantifiable. In my hometown in rural Minnesota, the best part of the Dari King (besides the note on the door that says, “Do not make checks out to Dairy Queen or Burger King”) is the food. The worst part is that you never know when they’re gonna close in any given summer (they have no indoor seating, so they must close to avoid frozen customers with frozen treats, starting at the latest around September 1).

This summer, my mom had a nice weekend getaway with a friend in early August, and came back to a disappointing “see you next summer” sign on the Dari King window. No more BBQs until 2014. No more malts. But the DQ, with its glorious corporately controlled predictability from the weight of cones to the percentage of polyester in the brown pants I had to wear, is still open.

My students, many of whom are northwest-local-herba-whole-foodie food fans, are often quick to dismiss the virtues of corporate anything, but most of them have not experienced the glorious customer service of our local Applebee’s restaurant, where the servers have kids in my son’s class at school, take pride in hanging up my son’s half-assed coloring contest submission, and where they change up the menu often, sometimes in misguided ways, like when they offered martinis with olives that had beef jerky slices shoved into them. And most of my wonderful students have not worked at the DQ, where the food is good, too. And I’m not just saying that because the DQ headquarters are in Minnesota.

Which is better: magnificent barbecues and shakes that may or may not be available, or decent barbecues and shakes that are always there? What if you like the people who work in both? Makes it hard to say.

My mom likes to tell the story of our first McDonald’s visit in Germany in 1976. We saw something called “Happy Macs” on the menu. So we ordered five of those, thinking they were some sort of burger-type food, and five Cokes. Happy Macs, however, were milkshakes, thus illustrating the gift of geographic diversity in the McD’s globalized menu offerings. Because nothing says Bavaria like milkshakes from a machine. We had predicted the predictable restaurant offerings wrong. And ended up with ten beverages and as many Bavarian furrowed eyebrows looking at us befuddled Americans.

To me, deliberating about restaurants is as much about the food as it is about the people. Like the confused elderly woman who ordered a “potato Blizzard” from me in 1989, or the man with one eye who wanted a Mountain Dew float with chocolate ice cream in 1991. Or the Applebee’s server who remembered my kid’s name last month. Or the local restaurant with amazing local ingredients where they have amazing food and amazingly remembered all of our names yesterday. I have enough room in my tummy for all of these.

Even at the DQ, I sewed a tighter inseam in my brown pants to make them more stylish. And we could certainly fudge the corporately controlled recipe a bit in our late night Blizzard concoctions. Audra Water was especially good at the fudging.

Mmmm, fudge.

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