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Johnny's Drive-Inn

Let's go for malts.

by Everett Wilson
March 25, 2006

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Johnny's Drive-Inn
The Partial Observer is read all over the world, so I don't know what you called them in your sector of the globe. In the American Midwest, in my generation, they were malts. Technically, they were malted milkshakes, but the short form had become standard before I entered high school.
 
Malts became much less common in the eighties and nineties, when a "shake" –forget the malt—was something that came out of a spigot at McDonalds.   
 
It isn't that these are bad, but they always look and taste the same. Also, I can't be convinced that the primary ingredient of the "shake" ever resembled ice cream.     
 
Last week my daughter and I were on the road in the afternoon, over a hundred miles from home, looking for ice cream. It's not as easy to find as it once was, even in a city. Then we spotted a fast-food chain known more for its hamburgers, and she said, "They have ice cream." It seemed the only possibility, so I swung into the lot. 
 
Yes, they had ice cream. Not soft-serve, not custard, but hard ice cream for hand dipping. That was almost as good as it could get. I was about to order a dish when I saw that they had "malts" on the menu! I asked the girl behind the counter—the contemporary of my oldest grandchild—whether she could make me a chocolate malt. She said she could, and I wondered to myself if she and I were talking about the same thing.   
 
Then she asked me if I wanted it made from chocolate ice cream or from vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. After that, I had total confidence in her, and watched her make the malt, identical in every essential to the malts I made fifty-five years ago as the malt boy at Johnny's Drive Inn. Watching her transported me back in time to the first real job I ever had, the first one that required a social security number. I was fifteen years old.   
 
I earned $18 for a 48-hour week, which sounds dreadful until you remember that you could go to a first-run movie house in the afternoon, buy popcorn and watch the movie, all for sixty cents. We didn't earn much, but then we didn't have to spend much either to have a very good time.                 
 
I worked all summer long except for a week spent at camp. I was physically too slow for the job I had to do; I have been in slow motion all my life. But I took the work seriously and stuck to it, and didn't intentionally goof off. The boss was kind to us. Our town had a curfew, so the boss sent the carhops home by taxi, and took me home himself. He only swore at me once, so on the way home that night I politely let him in on one of my mother's cardinal rules: "no boss ever has the right to swear at you." He was probably amazed that a spindly teenager would say such a thing to him, but he never raised his voice to me again. 
 
That summer I learned what it was to work so hard that I would go to bed and keep working in my sleep. I learned that in the adult world people really do count on you. I learned to respect the other indoor workers, especially the single mother who was the grill cook in charge of the night shift when the boss was away. They were kind to a twerpy kid not because he especially deserved it, but because they were kind people.
 
Few happy memories are entirely happy. I acted shabbily when the summer was over. In exchange for the week at camp, I had promised the boss that I would work some hours when school started. I reneged on that promise. I didn't want a job that would it cramp my extracurricular activities. That was inadequate recompense for breaking my word.   
             
 
 

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Brian Mack from Grand Rapids, MI writes:
March 27, 2006
Everett,

Thanks for a great memory!

I was raised in a little town south of Boston MA.

As you may or may not be aware, the beverage/confection that you describe has several names, with specific definitions to an East Coaster.

While this is likely to NOT be an exhaustive list, here are some of the most common:

Shake - Milk blended with flavored syrup

Frappe - Ice cream, milk, & flavored syrup

Malt - Same as Frappe w/ malt powder added

Fribble - a frappe served at a Friendly's restaurant

Cooler - a blended ice cream soda, made with sherbet and soda water (also a Friendly's specialty)

These distinctions are important to those of us lucky enough to be from the Northeast U.S. Like the way we say caa and bumpatabumpa traffic, it makes us uniquely New England.

Everett Wilson from Chetek, WI writes:
March 28, 2006
What you call a shake, we call chocolate (or flavored) milk.

What you call a frappe, we call a shake.

Malt is the same.

When travelling in the Texas panhandle as a teenager, I ordered chocolate milk. The waitress stirred ice cream into it along with syrup, with a spoon. Then my little brother wanted one too.

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