At least once a summer, I make the sweet, hour-long pilgrimage to my hometown Dairy Queen, a tiny cinderblock relic of Americana that still clings to its busy Main Street frontage. It’s wrapped in the iconic cherry-red awning and completely glassed-in, with two small sliding windows where you receive your Peanut Buster Parfait as well as a little huff of AC that escapes the stand’s refrigerated innards and cuts through the hot, wet Hoosier air.
That fleeting, nosehair-tingling blast of Freon smells exactly as I remember it from my childhood—bracing and clean, with an icy tinge of doctor’s office and vanilla. If I turn around and squint due north, I can see the steps to my old front porch, where I nursed hundreds of Mister Misties and dribbling Crunch Cones, graduating from Dilly Bars to Buster Bars before I moved away in the fifth grade.
Over the years, my ice cream tastes have evolved, of course. As a grown woman, I reach for flavors like sweet corn and gorgonzola-pecan—the smaller the batch, the better. I watch in awe as my food-court Thai rolled ice cream is scraped off the Arctic Griddle in Oreo-studded curls, and I scoop homemade vanilla custard from my own KitchenAid freezer bowl, constantly chasing that perfect snowpack of sugar and dairy with the proper creamy melting point.
That fleeting, nosehair-tingling blast of Freon smells exactly as I remember it from my childhood—bracing and clean, with an icy tinge of doctor’s office and vanilla.
But none of those fancy, French-potted desserts hit me like the taste of summer’s first DQ curl—the trademark soft-serve cowlick that tops all of the eighty-year-old brand’s voluptuous extruded treats, from the classic chocolate-dipped cone to the hot fudge Sundae to the triple-peaked the banana split. To me, that inaugural Kewpie lick is as satisfying as cracking into a crème brûlée or releasing a molten chocolate souffle, and I know I’m not the only nostalgic soul with a soft spot for Dairy Queen’s Scrumpdillylicious oeuvre.
Believe me, a person could easily fall down a sentimental eBay rabbit hole of classic Dennis the Menace window posters and collectible merch like the wee Curly Top Plush I snagged just now. I’ve come across DQ-specific listicles like Bustle’s “5 Throwback Dairy Queen Items You Can Still Order,” plus think pieces, essays, and—most fascinatingly—sprawling photo galleries featuring one of Dairy Queen’s vanishing legacies, its vintage roadside architecture.
This is where we learn that they no longer serve ice cream at the site of the world’s first Dairy Queen, which opened in 1940 along a stretch of Route 66 in Joliet, Illinois, before the chain would multiply into the thousands and span (at last count) across 27 countries. That location is marked with a commemorative plaque, but other Dairy Queens from the early years have survived the fro-yo age.
The lucky residents of Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin, can get their Blizzard fix at a low-slung ’50s-era Dairy Queen trimmed in neon, on a patio overlooking the public beach. The same marquee signage, a giant ice cream cone against a pontoon-sized blue background, floats over the classic Dairy Queen in Starbuck, Minnesota, and similarly well-preserved relics beckon from the side of the road in Paxton, Illinois, Worthington, Ohio, and Shelbyville, Indiana.
In downtown Moorhead, Minnesota, you can take your place in the line that forms around the town’s 1949 Dairy Queen, with its high red-shingled mansard roof. This family-owned shop, which claims to have invented the Dilly Bar, is known for its non-corporate menu additions, like the Mr. Maltie (a chocolate malt on a stick) and chocolate-dipped frozen bananas called Monkey Tails. You can also order a Chipper Sandwich—vanilla soft serve sandwiched between chocolate chip cookies and dipped in chocolate.
But why stop there? You could map out an entire Midwest road trip, stopping at every retro Misty Freeze provider along the way—but quickly, before they all melt away. Or you could simply head back to your own hometown DQ, where the ice cream always tastes sweeter.