Like everything, this begins with my mother. Born in the middle of the century, and raised in a middle-class house, she grew up in a most typical American way. Her parents, my grandparents Morris and Kathryn, were hard working, blue-collar people, my grandfather a manager at Sears and my grandmother a homemaker — the best there was, the both of them.
Dinner happened the same way every night: meat, potato, dilapidated vegetable. It was delicious; it was routine.
They splurged when they could, always for guests and holidays. The most special of those meals have been passed to me in folklore, sounding more beautiful than the last.
But the best of these tales did not take place in their dining room or at the kitchen counter. The stories I loved most were the ones about a car trip to a custard stand in the Town of Tonawanda, a place called Anderson's.
My grandfather, a most gracious family man, would put my mom and her sister in the car after dinner and go for a drive to a then-bucolic Sheridan Drive, a faraway destination at the time. It was worth the mileage. This was about the joy of a treat, about a grand finale to a long week, about licking your food off your hand so that it wouldn’t drip to the pavement. About saving the day.
This much hasn’t changed about the Anderson’s experience. It is still a destination for Little Leaguers and little ballerinas, celebrating their big night with the promise of sprinkles. It caters to the very young and the very old, those building nostalgia and those cashing it in. At its flagship store on Sheridan, not five miles down the road from our house, I find my mother’s memories and mine, swirled together.
It’s just ice cream, let’s be honest, simple ingredients, nothing fancy: cream and milk and eggs and sugar and chocolate and vanilla and the list goes on. It started with soft-serve custard in 1946, when Carl and Greta Anderson, the American-born children of Swedish immigrants, opened their first frozen custard stand in the Bronx. They returned to Buffalo the next year to open another on Kenmore Avenue. My mother always pointed out the original window to me on the way to my grandmother’s house.
Business boomed and in 1953, the Andersons moved to a much larger location, the drive-in flagship on Sheridan. A remodel of that location, with its diagonal windows, in the last few years refreshed the kitchen, windows, counters and seating areas, and thankfully retained its open-air walls that are enclosable in the winter. Cones are half-price when it’s snowing.
It has remained a pillar of the Tonawanda community, drawing locals and visitors, and generations of impromptu storytellers. Television hosts have visited, politicians have stumped, vintage cars have parked here. The place is a cyclone of traditions.
I recently overheard at the Sheridan location a table of older guys, one of whom was not from around here.
“Custard? What do you mean?” asked the newbie, blindly unimpressed at the thought.
“It’s like ice cream,” said the local emphatically, like an ambassador. You could hear his smile.
“If I wanted ice cream,” said the proud newbie, with prejudice, “I’d go to Dairy Queen.” Our ambassador sighed.
It went on like this for minutes, these grown men debating about dessert. They were joking, but maybe not so much. Maybe everybody defends their childhood’s ice cream cone this aggressively. Maybe everybody has an Anderson’s of their own (I hope so). Someplace where they could tiptoe up to a freezer case and glaze their eyes upon a selection of flavors too cruel to narrow down. Their parent had to trim the rim of their cone before handing it off. They paid for it, was the rule. Some people never grow up.
The food menu teases, too—so many options.
Roast beef came to the Anderson’s menu in 1964. Carved thin by a deli slicer, piled onto a kummelweck roll, bedazzled with thick salt and gum-defying caraway seeds, it has become a strong half of the Anderson’s brand. The 5-oz. Carl’s Choice ($6.59) a great sandwich, but it’s not my favorite beef on weck in town. I prefer it cut thick, juicy with a strain of fat. (I prefer Charlie the Butcher’s, but that’s another article.) Horseradish comes piled high, and on my order, ketchup binds it all together with sweet tang. This is sacrilege to many, but I just don’t care.
The menu has been added to over the years, as it evolved from a casual custard window to a unique kind of fast food. Today it boasts an international menu of roast beef sandwiches: a Greek with feta and dressing ($6.18); an Italian with provolone, peppers and onions ($6.77); and a strictly American one with mashed potatoes, cheddar, onion rings and bistro sauce ($7.76).
There are salads with a variety of hearty toppings. There are burgers, many kinds of fries—Curly Que fries ($2.09) are the house favorite; you should douse them in vinegar—chicken tenders with fries ($5.49), fish sandwiches ($5.99) and much more. There’s the remarkable soft-serve lemon ice ($1.94, small) which was taken home by the quart ($5.19) for sore throats.
They still serve loganberry, but so do a lot places now. You used to come here just for the drink, and Vernors. I bought a bottle of that at the gas station a few weeks ago. Times change.
I like their menu, always have. But I miss when it offered less, when you had to go there to get what you loved. I miss prophesizing the daily custard flavor of the day on the car ride there, hoping against all hope for pistachio. (Butter rum and black raspberry, too.) You had to run and check the magnetic board to find out if it was the best or worst day of your life. The calendar available online today, a helpful month or two at a glance, erases those moments.
Maybe it’s silly to think about these foods with such reverence. Nostalgia for food can be futile, though; you can always order another sandwich. The food at Anderson's is both the backdrop and the reason for your visit. How lucky are we to get to revisit our collective youths.
I’m lucky to have been raised in a family where meals are sacred—what you eat, who you eat it with, what you eat it on. It does not have to be complex. It should not be fussy. It can be elaborate or it can be simple. It needs to be delicious. And it might as well be memorable.
This was the way I grew up with Anderson’s. This was the way my mother grew up with it. My grandfather died before I was old enough to know him. But I always knew what kind of a guy he was in small part because of the way his daughter fed me. I know that meals ought to be special, even if their ingredients are not. A drive-in custard stand with beef sandwiches can mean the world to a child, or a child-at-heart. You can do a lot with meat and potatoes.