History, the History Channel, and Dairy Queen

Posted in American, Culture, Television by Alex L. on March 6, 2010

You feel a bit silly when you find yourself – an adult man – sitting alone in an otherwise-empty Dairy Queen store, licking a soft-serve ice cream cone. This was the situation in which I found myself yesterday after I deposited a check at my bank and, pulling out of the parking lot, decided to park again and buy some ice cream. I usually don’t have cravings for ice cream during late winter, but this time I couldn’t resist.

I’ve been visiting this shopping plaza biweekly for the past four months, and yesterday (Friday) was the first time I’ve noticed that there was a Dairy Queen store next door to my bank. I usually ignore Dairy Queens for the same reason I ignore Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts: I hate their pink signs and bubbly graphic art trying to convince me everybody’s having a good time inside the store when it’s actually usually empty. It’s inauthentic and corporate and depressing.

Those were my thoughts about Dairy Queen until this Thursday, when I had come home from work and, in lieu of going to the gym, had decided to watch an episode of Modern Marvels about ice cream on the History Channel. I used to think Modern Marvels – a documentary series about modern technology – was an impostor on the History Channel, taking up valuable air time that could be better utilized by a show about the history of the samurai, the story of the Romanov dynasty, or even yet another special about World War II. But I’ve recently come to respect Modern Marvels for doing what good history does as well: make the present artificial world (what humans create apart from the natural world) more understandable.

In his classic book of popular philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig claims that the reason many people in the modern world feel alienated by the sight of technology (imagine the feeling you get driving past an electric power station) is because they don’t understand the “mind” behind the metallic beast. That is, if they only understood how technology worked, people would feel a lot less threatened by it. In fact, they would perhaps even begin to think of the electric power station as almost beautiful.

The Modern Marvels episode I watched on Thursday described the technology of making ice cream, as well as the history of the famous franchise Dairy Queen, the originators of soft-serve ice cream. I was surprised to see a photo of the grand opening of the first Dairy Queen in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois: throngs of families crowding the store on a hot summer day. The franchise spread, and Dairy Queens became almost emblematic of small-town American life in the 1950s and 1960s.

After watching about the technology and history of ice cream in America on Thursday, I felt it fitting and proper on Friday, when I noticed for the first time the Dairy Queen (now known as “DQ”) next to my bank , that I would stop by and take part in an American ritual. The store was empty, as I expected. A women’s college basketball game was playing on a flat-screen TV in the back of the store. The graphic design in the store looked like it was imported from a design agency in New York or California which no doubt held many meetings to come up with a way to convey the message, through bright signs printed on cheap and durable materials, of “zany”.

I ordered a cone with a stack of puffy soft-serve ice-cream layers that I remembered seeing on Modern Marvels. I sat at a booth and enjoyed my dessert while looking at the framed photographs hung on the wall: black-and-white, showing Dairy Queen shops of the past, the only monochrome design elements in the store. I thought to myself that I looked out of place here because a grown man should not be eating ice cream alone, especially in the evening during winter.

Before I finished my cone, a man had walked into the store, the only other customer aside from me. He had graying hair and was dressed in neat business-casual attire. He too ordered soft serve and sat at a booth by the main door. Another grown man buying an ice-cream cone by himself – perhaps I wasn’t so crazy after all. On my way out of the DQ, I passed by the man: he was eating his ice cream and typing on a Blackberry.

Walking by his Lexus SUV in the parking lot, I imagined that the man in the DQ had grown up in the 1960s in one of those small towns I had heard about on the History Channel. He would go to the Dairy Queen with his parents and siblings, and there would be neighbors and friends that he expected to see there. I imagined that now, in his 50s, that man sometimes drives by a DQ and childhood memories prompt him to stop, come inside, and partake of a dead ritual. I thought about this while I drove home.

My recent work as a web designer has made me more sensitive to art and design in my environment. I can walk into a zany Baskin-Robbins/Dunkin’ Donuts combo store without feeling sick with myself as I used to feel, because now I understand the design process that went into creating the persuasive graphical monstrosity that permeates such corporate places. But understanding something foreign and powerful doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be on board. Sometimes the bright-and-colorful relics of the present are more dead than the black-and-white memories of the past.

2 Responses

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  1. Saad said, on March 22, 2010 at 4:14 am

    I love this, “Sometimes the bright-and-colorful relics of the present are more dead than the black-and-white memories of the past”. It’s true of the past, no matter how messed up it is, you remember it fondly. I wish I had grown up in the 50s when times were simpler. People had less money but they were actually happy. There was a sense of community and interdependence on others.

  2. historyjournalblog said, on April 14, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    Hey Saad,

    I think you’re right. Nostalgia cuts both ways – we tend to suppress the bad things about the past and remember what was good about it. The ’50s had a greater sense of community than America today (the good) but at the cost of suppressing diversity in those communities through policies like segregation (the bad).

    I think the past seems safer to us because it’s dead in a sense – we can make of it what we want in our minds. The present is uncertain and we don’t know what will come of it: the present is dangerous. But it is also “alive”; we don’t live in the past, after all.

    Thank you for posting,

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