Vacationers James and June Johnston knew precisely where they wanted to go last week when they left Bay St. Louis, Miss., for Maryland: the dairy bar at the University of Maryland College Park.
With elbows on the green plastic tablecloth at a booth, the retirees savored double-scoops of Dutch apple ice cream. His in a dish, hers dwarfing a cone.
"This is the first time we've been back to Maryland in 20 years, and they still have our favorite flavor," said Mr. Johnston, a former oceanographer. "I recognized the building as soon as I drove up. I don't think they've changed a single thing."
That's not quite true. Some changes have been made since 1924, when the university began dishing up its homemade ice cream from the dairy bar at the edge of U.S. 1. Back then, the highway was the major thoroughfare from Maine to Florida and the cows mooed a few feet from the building's door, their milk becoming the ice cream made in the back.
The herd was put out to pasture in the late 1960s, and the ice cream mix was put out to bid.
What hasn't changed is the formula, devised by the late Dr. Wendell Arbuckle, an ice cream maven and University of Maryland professor. Legend has it he tried making ice cream out of green beans and broccoli.
Veggies are not in the current 60-flavor rotation, which Washingtonian magazine has rated the area's best buy for ice cream and the best vanilla.
From the sophomore who jump-starts her weekday mornings with a 20-ounce pistachio milkshake -- that's 2 1/2 scoops plus whole milk -- to the 50th reunion alumni who quizzed university President William E. Kirwan about it last month, the ice cream is a school tradition.
The dairy bar is such an integral part of campus life that a visit is included in most sections of the freshman skills seminar -- the course that tells you how to plan study time so you don't need to pull an all-nighter.
One recent afternoon, a gaggle of freshmen piled into the dairy bar with Bill Higgins. The associate dean of the college of life sciences was buying to celebrate the last class and boost a university product.
"I've been a faculty member 22 years. This is one of the first places I was shown when I got here," he said.
"When you are down and blue, there is nothing like Maryland ice cream," Mr. Higgins told the students. He swears by Chesapeake blueberry.
Dr. Kirwan, who has been eating at the dairy bar for 24 years, wants the building to bring in more business. The university is working on a remodeling plan that will expand lunch service and replace the mismatched paneling in the dairy bar.
Cornucopia on a cone
Even the dairy bar manager has been going there for decades.
"I was raised right here in University Park. We did [as] a family walk here. I had seven brothers and sisters. I went to school here," said Bob Beckman, 49. He pointed to the ice cream bin. "And now I sample all of them."
Shenandoah's Pride dairy in Northern Virginia follows the recipe for the ice cream mix, providing bags of the unflavored cold soup. The blend was last reformulated in 1947 -- when it was dropped from a super-premium 16 percent butterfat to a premium 12 percent, said Gary M. Lapanne, manager of the ice cream-making operation.
At the ice cream processing plant, two students work part time adding flavors, then dripping ice cream slush into 3-gallon tubs with the UM insignia and half-gallon cartons with the school's terrapin. In all, they make 25,000 gallons of ice cream a year in 10-gallon batches to serve the dining halls and Turner Lab.
The packaged ice cream goes into the hardening room, a walk-in freezer kept at 20 degrees below zero.
While all that sounds overwhelming to the average eater, it's hardly a threat to the big companies. Giant Food Inc. manufactures 7.5 million gallons of ice cream a year, said Barry Scher, Giant's vice president for public affairs.
Nevertheless, that's down from the dairy bar's heyday of 40,000 gallons a year a generation ago, when its best advertisements were lines of cone-licking kids on the brick wall by U.S. 1 and people wrapped around the building waiting to order.
Ice cream sales -- exclusively on campus except for a few community and church socials -- are designed to pay for half the $250,000 annual dairy plant budget. The plant's purpose is to teach about processing techniques and conduct dairy research.
"This is a means to an end," said Mr. Lapanne, who has been in the ice cream business for 29 years.
It's also a means to gain weight.
"I was at about 170 pounds when I started in this business," said Mr. Lapanne. "I'm a good 245-pounder now."