Warm Nostalgia: Glen's Frozen Custard is the sweetest thing of every summer
August 23, 2013 4:00 AM
A sign at Glen's Custard in Springdale.
By Ronna L. Edelstein
I am not sure that life without tradition is as shaky as a fiddler on a roof, but I am convinced that traditions have a way of adding the "extra" to the "ordinary."
Sadly, time and circumstances have eliminated many of Dad's and my favorite traditions: after-dinner walks through Shadyside, Sunday strolls around the Highland Park reservoir, lunch at Wholey's followed by window shopping Downtown.
Dad and I no longer compete to see who first completes the crossword puzzle; sometimes we do not even bother to attempt the puzzle. Once my children grew up, we ended the "start the summer at Kennywood" tradition. And when Grandma and Ma took with them in death their "secret" recipe for stuffing, the Thanksgiving turkey tradition diminished in meaning.
However, Dad and I refuse to allow rain or wind, cholesterol or calories, old age or new aches to allow one special tradition to disappear: the annual trip to Glen's Frozen Custard.
The outing to Springdale has always been more than a drive for a creamy treat; it is also a journey to the past because for 60-some years, it has been my family's go-to summer destination.
I remember crowding into the Chevy -- Dad and Mom in the front seat, Grandma sitting between my older brother and me in the back -- as we rode over the Highland Park Bridge and through the hills to Glen's.
The lack of air conditioning in the car did not bother me; I welcomed the breeze from the open window, a breeze that I am convinced brought with it the aromas of Glen's before it even came into view.
Founded in 1948, Glen's lacks the glamour I can recall of the former Isaly's on the Boulevard of the Allies in Oakland; it has no room for patrons to stand inside out of the rain or heat. However, what it does have is custard -- vanilla, chocolate and the changing flavor du jour -- a velvety smooth concoction that releases bursts of flavor on the tongue.
As a child, I always got three scoops, one of each flavor, and managed to savor those scoops on the trip back to Pittsburgh via New Kensington, Logan's Ferry and Rodi Road. Even today, when I limit myself to one scoop of vanilla and one of the third custard option, I can make the custard last the entire trip.
The enjoyment of Glen's was always enhanced by the pleasure of hearing Dad and Grandma talk about their life in New Kensington, the town in which they lived from 1918 to 1926. They shared a big house with Grandma's parents, brothers and sister.
Dad, the only child in the residence, quickly learned the value of being seen but not heard. Still, he left his mark when his bout with rheumatic fever forced everyone to temporarily leave the contaminated house.
Grandma helped at home as well as at the Miller Brothers Shoe Store that proudly stood on Fifth Avenue in what was then a bustling New Kensington community. I had a hard time imagining my regal-like grandma as a shoe clerk, but an even more difficult time picturing trains chugging in and out of New Kensington from Pittsburgh and other destinations.
Dad said that he and Grandma often took one of those trains into Pittsburgh for shopping, hot corned beef sandwiches and maybe a live show at a Downtown theater.
I would lick my cone and listen to the remembrances, lapping up sweet custard and even sweeter memories. Long after Ma washed the inevitable custard stains out of my shirt, the stories of the trip stayed with me.
Dad and I continue to go to Glen's. Although I am now the one who drives, he is still the one telling stories. The New Kensington he remembers and the one that now exists have very little in common, but Dad's words help me see beyond boarded-up stores to what once was -- and what may possibly be again, if the town undergoes a renaissance.
Dad, Ma and Grandma always found time to take my young children and me to Glen's when we visited Pittsburgh from out of state. Even today, Dad and I take my adult children there each summer for an after-dinner treat and a reunion with their past.
My son and daughter have learned the lesson I learned years ago: A life without tradition, especially the Glen's tradition, would be -- both literally and symbolically -- less sweet.
Ronna L. Edelstein, a teacher living in Oakland, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Warm Nostalgia" submissions about special summer memories, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.