It's not too often you still hear the whirring and grinding noise produced by a milkshake machine.
Every fast-food outlet sells something called a shake, but milk is not necessarily one of the ingredients. Fast-food shakes seem to have more to do with joint compound than what a cow provides.
Milkshakes were a personal thing in the days when every corner seemed to have a drug store with a soda fountain. Some places made them to perfection, others served ones that were mediocre or flat. You either loved those made at Read's drug stores or detoured to places like Schwaab's, the fountain and sweet shop Waverly, or to Davidov's, a drug store in North Bend.
East Baltimore once had a milkshake war, recalls James Asimakes, 80, a resident of the Mayfield neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore.
"It was in the 1930s. The Prevas Brothers, John and Nick, had a stall on the corner of the Broadway Market. They were selling milkshakes for five cents. They had a war with the man who had a small stall on the other corner. The Prevas Brothers started selling milkshakes at two for five cents. The man on the corner went out of business," Asimakes said.
The Prevas' milkshake machine survives. It's a curious instrument. It looks like a small-scale washing machine agitator thought up by Rube Goldberg. It shakes the milk and makes it foamy. It's not designed specifically to smoothly mix the ice cream, but it probably could do that, too.
In milkshakes, ice cream was the normally added ingredient, but some people ordered them made with a raw egg, sugar and a dose of vanilla.
A few people ordered malt added to milkshakes, but these requests were kind of rare. Baltimoreans never got in the habit of referring to a milkshake by the term "malt."
The milkshake was an essential component of the soda fountain. In Baltimore, Hendler's was the predominant local neighborhood ice cream. It was considered superior to Arundel, its long-time competitor. There was something about Arundel ice cream that tended to break down under repeated thrashings by a motorized electric spoon.
The milk could have been from any of our hometown dairies -- Western Maryland, Koontz, Kress, Green Spring, Cloverland, Wilton Farms or Royal-Dunloggin.
The standard milkshake machine was a Hamilton Beach, with a light green porcelain enamel body and stainless steel cups and blades. There may have been places that shook them by hand in canisters similar to cocktail shakers but I never witnessed this.
Milkshake connoisseurs also had their favorite mixologists. My family's was a small gentleman named Jack Lansdale. Dressed in a tan smock, white shirt and tie he presided over the soda fountain at the Guilford Pharmacy, Guilford Avenue and 28th Street.
He had an excellent touch at the Hamilton Beach. He knew which customers wanted a big or little dab of ice cream; which wanted a chocolate milkshake with both chocolate ice cream and chocolate syrup, or a chocolate shake with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup.
It was essential that a milkshake be served in separate vessels. The first was the drinking cup -- sometimes a paper cone in a metal holder -- or a glass. The other was the heavy metal milkshake cup which contained the extra portion of foamy milk that failed to fit in the first pouring. Any milkshake served solo in a plain glass without the metal sidecar wasn't worth paying for.
Thickness was not necessarily a sign of a truly successful milkshake. Some customers would not tolerate too much ice cream. Too much peach or strawberry ice cream also clogged soda straws, that hollow instrument considered absolutely necessary for consuming this product. The straw also assisted in the loud slurping noise considered impolite but nevertheless permitted in the name of draining a milkshake down to the last drop.
When soft-serve ice cream made its arrival in the early 1950s, the thick shake came into its own and seemingly emerged the winner. There were persistent rumors and much speculation about what additives allowed a spoon to stand upright when inserted into one of these super-thick confections.
Maybe it was too many trips to Ocean City past the fields of the Eastern Shore, but there were serious suggestions that bean powder was at work in the thick shake.