Parking lot reverie
Stand in the First Street parking lot of Wells Fargo Bank and you’ll find it a pretty barren spot. Not only are you alone in that emptiness, but also nothing sparkles off the asphalt, nothing titillates your senses, and absolutely nothing draws you irresistibly to it.
But, not so fast. Look down at where you’re standing. What is under you? Just asphalt, you answer. No, no! Whether you realize it or not, you are perched upon hallowed ground. Pause and wait and reflect. Slowly your self-induced reverie will begin to recall your past. Encircling you about now is a cloud of venerated silence, the kind of reverent hush that enfolds you in the holiest of chapels. (The Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Augustine’s come to mind.)
Next you feel your shoulders drop as your muscles relax. A peaceful tranquility comes over you.
This is the moment when your memory fully kicks in. You are suddenly drawn back in time: a time of enormous deliciousness, for what is beneath you is anointed ground. You are standing on soil that is saturated with a heavenly mixture of sugar, rich cream, vanilla and just a pinch of salt.
In a word: Zesto!
The history of this yummy treat goes all the way back to 1948 in Jefferson City, Missouri. There an entrepreneur and inventor, L.A.M. Phelan, opened the first of his national franchise chain. The closely guarded secret to his success was the “Zest-O-Mat,” a frozen custard machine.
I know all about that machine because once upon a time, I mastered it. Yes, I could twist a tight triple curl on the uppermost top of a cone that was the envy of every beauty shop in Austin.
Zesto and I began in 1953, when my father closed his Main Street grocery store, the Square Deal (located in what is now Twice Is Nice). Dad’s right-hand man was Fred Key, a wonderful, honest, good-to-the-core gentleman who for decades worked as the store’s fruit and vegetable man, a job he did with diligence, devotion and a keen eye for display.
But with Dad’s sudden decision to close the store, Fred was left without an occupation. Enter Zesto. Enter Fred. Enter my father. What a perfect fit they would be, thought Dad. So without hesitation, the Zesto Stand was his final gift to Fred; a way of saying thank you for all the many decades of excellent service and loyalty.
I was 15 when the Zesto Stand opened. Fifteen was no doubt an illegal age (but who was checking?), and I was the lucky duck who became Fred’s first and only employee. You cannot imagine the seriousness with which I took this job. It began with what I deemed to be the proper outfit. Right off the bat I bought two nurse’s uniforms (sans the silly peaked hat). Zesto was white, so I had to be in white. Zesto was pure like nurses were pure … or at least the ones I knew convinced me they were … so I had to be pure like them.
Every night I washed that day’s uniform, always having one ready for the next day. In my perfectly ironed outfit anyone who looked at me knew that it was I alone who kept Niagara Starch in business. Encased in that board-like dress, I moved like the Tin Man. If I bent over, it cracked. So I tried to keep upright.
I also wore white tennis shoes (scrubbed to a blinding opalescence each night) along with white socks. Florence Nightingale could have easily confused me with one of her hospital staff.
Each summer morning, I walked the mile to my job with a jaunty zip in my step and a permanent smile on my face. Why, you ask? Because I knew, hands down, that I had the best job in Austin. Think about it. People do not buy ice cream when they’re angry or depressed or uptight. Cantankerous Austin people hung out at the town bars. Happy Austin people hung out at “my” Zesto Stand.
We sold cones for five cents, 10 cents and 25 cents (the last one being the monster cone). Only rarely did anyone buy the monster, but when they did it was cause to celebrate for that was our money maker.
Not all of the cones were bare naked white. Our most glamorous cones were dipped in either chocolate or a fruity pastel covering. You can imagine what kind of ambidextrous skill it took to hold the pointy cone upside down! To be sure, it was a frozen custard sleight-of-hand trick. And don’t think for one moment that Fred and I didn’t show off our skills to the max. If we’d had tail feathers, we would have unfurled them like peacocks.
Almost overnight I, Peggy McLaughlin, became a Zesto pro, earning me the portentous title of “Margaret Gene the Zesto Queen.” (Margaret, you see, was my official birth name and like all nobility, propriety demanded that I use it. Otherwise it would have been like calling Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth, “Queen Bets!” See what I mean?)
Shamelessly I loved the esteem of my title. My only regret was that the honor did not come with a sparkly crown. I didn’t expect diamonds, you understand. Just a smattering of rhinestones here and there would have sufficed.
But even queens slip up now and then. Occasionally I made a mistake. This usually happened when I was about to dip the upside down cone into the chocolate. Plop! Quick as could be, I scooped it up into a bowl and rushed it to the sink in the backroom. Therein lay a great discovery!
It was like this: we sold only the tan cake cones. What we learned about them is that if they sit for hours in their own melted custard puddle, the Zesto custard transforms the crispy cone into something equivalent to the texture of human skin. All brittleness disappears and the now soggy cone becomes very pliable and super delicious. Fred and I never threw our mistakes away nor did we purposely goof up. We were way too professional and frugal for that. But at closing time, away from the public’s eye, we devoured our errors with much gusto. Absolutely divoon!
The Zesto Stand was like a social belly button in that, like all central meeting places, it held many Austin folks together. There were no inside tables and chairs. People congregated on the sidewalk or leaned their upper bodies through one of the two order windows to talk to me. I loved it. Some customers came every day … like the one businessman who was determined that I must marry one of his two sons. He didn’t care which one just as long as I’d do it. Or the lady who never bought Zesto for herself, but every day bought a cone for her dog. It was easy to recognize which dog it was because he was the one with the frozen-custard-encrusted whiskers.
Yes, Zesto was indeed a delicious treat. Furthermore, buying frozen soft custard was a big deal family outing, a welcome summer break from a stifling, non-air-conditioned house. For only a quarter, a family of five could each cool down while spending precious time together.
I suppose the 50s was a simpler time. It was a time when the way we looked meant something extra—like for example a starched white nurse’s uniform on a bogus queen conveyed a message of pride and accomplishment. It was also a time in which—as we devoured our cones—we actually looked at each other instead of at phones. Heck, the only phone we knew was the one tethered to our house by a tightly cork-screwed cord. To be sure, cars didn’t bring everyone to the Zesto Stand, our feet (imagine that!) or our bicycles did. And once there, we stopped between licks (lap! smack!) to chat with new and old acquaintances.
Right about now, maybe just maybe, Austin could use another Zesto Stand.
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