There is no better way to beat the heat of a summer day than with a cool scoop of vanilla ice cream — potentially topped with confetti sprinkles, or perhaps a chocolate drizzle. You could get it on a waffle cone, or if that’s not your thing, you could go for a melty milkshake or some creamy custard.
But what do these sweet treats all have in common? Their histories are deeply rooted in the heart of America — and today the Midwest remains a primary producer of all things dairy.
Self-described ice cream scientist Maya Warren recalls visiting locally owned ice cream shops, like Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, while growing up in St. Louis, Missouri.
According to Warren, a co-founder of the social advocacy organization Ice Cream for Change, these shops represent “nostalgic little pockets” that are especially prevalent in the Midwest.
“Ice cream plays this role of nostalgia where people grew up going to that small ice cream place that may only be located in St. Louis, Missouri, or it might only be located in Kansas or might only be located in Iowa,” Warren said. “It’s only one but people love it. People are drawn to it.”
With a deep tradition of ice cream production and consumption in the Midwest, the region is responsible for the creation of several variations of this frozen treat.
Though ice cream itself was invented more than 1,000 years ago in China, the Midwest has become an epicenter for the production of this dessert. From the introduction of the waffle cone at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 to the milkshake’s entrance into mainstream culture at a Chicago Walgreens in 1922, Midwestern locales have played an instrumental role in the production of ice cream-inspired treats in addition to ice cream itself.
But why exactly have Midwestern states proven to be such a hot spot for ice cream and other frozen dairy treats?
The answer is simple — or more specifically, the answer is another question: Got milk?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture states that ice cream must contain no less than 20% total milk solids and 10% milk fat to meet department standards. Dairy is a crucial ingredient in ice cream, and Midwestern states like Wisconsin generate lots of it.
Wisconsin has consistently produced the second-largest amount of milk of any state since 1993, when California took the top spot from the “Dairy State.” In 2022, Wisconsin was responsible for the production of nearly 31.9 billion pounds of milk, almost twice the amount produced by Idaho, the next leading state.
According to Warren, geography is key in examining the factors that make Wisconsin crucial to ice cream production.
Warren said Wisconsin earned its reputation as the “Dairy State” due to an affinity for putting resources toward research on dairy at the University of Wisconsin — where she earned a doctorate in food science — and the favorable conditions for cattle in the state.
“If you’re going to grass-feed cattle or anything like that, [Wisconsin] has enough land and it has environments the cattle are happy in,” she said. “Happy cows can make happy products and delicious products.”
Although Wisconsin is known as “America’s Dairyland,” the state actually comes second to California in terms of total dairy production.
California is the largest milk-producing state in the country, largely because of its large size and mild weather conditions, Warren said. She also said the state’s location on the Pacific Ocean makes it easier to ship dairy products overseas.
Much like the central region of California, Wisconsin also boasts a climate that creates appealing conditions for cows to live in and farmers to grow grass in, according to Gail Carpenter, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University.
“The Midwest is where cows can thrive,” she said. “Cows do not like to get hot. The Midwest supports work farther north so it’s just easier to cool cows.”
Given the significant presence of cows in the Midwest compared to other parts of the U.S., Carpenter said, the region is uniquely situated to provide dairy resources for local and regional enterprises looking to make ice cream.
Of these companies, fast food chains have been some of the most notable in incorporating ice cream products into their menus, Carpenter said.
Midwest-based fast-food chains like Kopp’s Frozen Custard, Culver’s and Portillo’s have incorporated ice cream and variations of it, such as the milkshake or frozen custard, into their menus.
In fact, Chicago is largely credited as the birthplace of the modern milkshake. Although versions of the term appeared in 1885 to reference an adult beverage with eggs and whiskey, the milkshake as we know it today is said to have first appeared in a Windy City Walgreens in 1922.
There, employee Ivar “Pop” Coulson took an old-fashioned malted milk and added two scoops of ice cream to create what some believe is the first modern-day milkshake. Given the invention of the electric blender that same year by Racine, Wisconsin, resident Stephen Poplawski, milkshakes were well on their way to becoming a popular commodity at malt shops across the nation.
Nonetheless, geography alone isn’t enough to sustain the regional popularity of these dairy delights.
Warren also said that milkshakes may be a popular commodity in the Midwest due to people’s affinity in the region for comfort food — or foods that are high in fat and sugar. These comfort foods trigger hormones in the brain that draw consumers back to those products that make them feel good, she said.
Comfort foods like ice cream can also elicit feelings of nostalgia or sentimentality, feelings that consumers in the Midwest sometimes associate with ice cream consumption, Warren said.
Frozen custard is another ice cream-based treat that has built a strong reputation in the Midwest, especially in Wisconsin. Frozen custard contains more egg yolk solids (1.4%) to create a thicker and creamier texture than traditional ice cream. While the velvety dessert was originally invented in Coney Island, New York, the treat has since found its unofficial capital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Badger State’s largest city is home to the world’s largest concentration of frozen custard shops.
“Custard makes sense when you have a lot of eggs. And Iowa is the number one egg state,” said Stephanie Clark, a food science professor and the creamery director at ISU. “We have a lot of eggs produced here.”
According to the World Population Review, Iowa is the highest-producing state for eggs, with an output of around one billion in 2022. The Hawkeye State’s significant egg output can largely be attributed to its abundance of corn and soybean meal used to feed chickens. States like that border Iowa, like Wisconsin and Missouri, benefit from its egg production when it comes to making ice cream.
The combination of these factors makes it easier for some colleges in the Midwest, like Illinois State University, the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to produce their own ice cream, according to Clark.
At ISU, Clark oversees a creamery that creates dark chocolate, regular chocolate and chocolate custard ice cream mixes. The product is then distributed to a retail store and two other locations on the ISU campus, she said.
To some scientists, working in dairy science provides a connection to their upbringings. Clark said she grew up milking goats and making goat cheese on a small farm that produced dairy. Although farming has decreased nationwide over the past 80 years, the practice still represents a key livelihood for thousands of Midwest residents today.
Warren said she believes people in the Midwest are especially drawn to the memories that come from visiting ice cream shops they have frequented for years or, in some cases, decades. Ice cream’s wide appeal also connects the Midwest to other regions across the country and the globe.
“The most beautiful thing about ice cream is that it really does bring the world together,” Warren said.