Ann Christenson's Nostalgic Summer Food Memories + 3 Dining Options for Traveling Back in Time

Memories of favorite summertime dishes from childhood

My childhood was marked by scorching, sunburned summers, heat that permeated the house, the kitchen being the stickiest spot of all. My mother, managing always to look put-together in her 1970s skorts and sleeveless cotton tops, based her food plans for the day on the temperature.
If it wasn’t a day for lying around in front of a fan (not her, but us, her lazy kids), she might turn the oven on and bake. When blueberries were plentiful, she’d put together a coffeecake topped with a thick layer of streusel.
More special were the days she’d sprinkle flour on a large wooden cutting board and roll out circles of smooth pastry for a blueberry pie. When the fruit-filled domes looked golden in the oven light, she’d pull them out to cool. In spots where she gently slit the top crust, the bubbling blueberry juice would dribble over the crust and sides of the Pyrex dish.
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This story is taken from our June 2019 feature:
99 Days of Summer: Here’s Your 2019 Guide to Maximal Milwaukee Summer Fun

Illustration by Kavel Rafferty
On the occasions when summer’s sweltering heat was broken by torrential storms (and trips to the basement during tornado warnings), our nightly family dinner might be cold “submarine” sandwiches or tuna pasta salad. Burgers on the Weber charcoal grill were a weekly routine, rain or shine. The foods that fueled my daydreams were low-brow culinary Americana, from the chocolate shell-encased Dairy Queen Dilly Bar to the jaw-straining double-patty Big Boy burger to a saltine-crust pizza slid inside a sweaty paper sleeve from the classic Zaffiro’s.
August would roar in, the hottest month, bringing a massive food project to our kitchen: pickle canning. My brothers and I were enlisted to clean the cukes before pickling. Leaning over the basement utility sink, we scrubbed tiny green gourds with a stiff brush under ice-cold water, leaving our palms frozen and raw. When my mom started the water-bath process, the stench of vinegar brine took over the house, sending us running outdoors.
Summer was the year’s great respite from winter, from homework, from the meatloaf and pot roasts I pulled every prank to avoid eating. I still crave those ritual summer foods, the flavor memories stored in my brain, the years making them ever sweeter.

Travel Back in Time With These Dining Options

The seasonal Nite Owl drive-in serves one of the best fast-food hamburgers in the city, opening each day at 11 a.m. and closing when the supply of ground beef (delivered fresh each morning) is all gone. No wonder the place is always mobbed. 830 E. Layton Ave.
Serving the trifecta of summer foods (frozen custard, burgers, hot dogs), 52-year-old Fred’s Custard and Grill keeps an under-the-radar existence in Washington Heights. But it’s Mecca if you’re one of Fred’s roast beef enthusiasts. 4726 W. Vliet St.
Lead-feet can make it down to Franks Diner in Kenosha in a half-hour, and it’s well worth the drive. Try the massive pancakes or the “garbage plate,” a filling platter of eggs, meat and such. The dining car was delivered by rail from New Jersey in 1926. 508 58th St., Kenosha

“Say Hello to Summer!” appeared in the June 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.