Food Fight

Food Fight: Vanilla Malt

Way back in 2009, Katharine Shilcutt wrote in considerable detail about exactly what sort of drink could properly be called a milkshake. I have no intention of fighting that battle again, primarily because there's nothing to debate. A milkshake means milk and ice cream, and it should be so thick that, after attempting to drink it through a straw, you are forced to switch to a spoon.

Besides, this post is about malts, not milkshakes. A malt (or to be more formal, a "malted milkshake") is a regular milkshake with malted milk powder added during the mixing process. Malted milk, like all great things in this world, is an American invention, but it wasn't originally intended for use in milkshakes and Whoppers. Devised in the late nineteenth century in Racine, Wisconsin by the British-born Horlick brothers, malted milk powder was intended to be an easily digestible cereal-with-milk replacement for the very young, the infirm, and those without access to fresh milk. As such, it was deemed (and marketed as) a health food product, much like the Kellogg brothers and C.W. Post, just across the lake in Battle Creek, Michigan, pitched their cereals a few years later.

In his 1882 patent application, William Horlick described his invention as "consisting of the extract of finely-ground barley-malt and cereals macerated in fresh milk, in which the starch contained in the cereals is converted into dextrine and grape-sugar." To emphasize the diastatic (i.e., enzymatic) power of the barley malt, Horlick called the finished product "Diastoid." Did that even sound good at the time? Because all I hear is a conflation of Dianetics and (take your pick) hemorrhoid, steroid, or graboid. Thankfully, the brothers Horlick soon began marketing their product as "malted milk."

As a health food product, malted milk was widely available in drugstores, which in a happy coincidence also housed many of the country's soda fountains. Before long, enterprising druggists began using malted milk to flavor drinks, and by the 1920s had begun adding it to milkshakes. As Anne Cooper Funderburg relates in Sundae Best, her lively history of the soda fountain, pharmacists promoted the malted milkshake "as a complete meal and charged a premium price." Man! It must have been awesome to live in a time when you could have a vanilla malt for lunch and honestly believe you were doing it for your health.

The exact origin of the malted milkshake is a little hazy, but the strongest, or at least most insistent, evidence is that that the first was served in a Chicago Walgreen's in 1922. Yes, Walgreen's. Nowadays, to honor its place in malt history, every Walgreen's is required to stock the concession-size Whoppers. Well, they should, and price it as a loss leader. I would switch over all of my prescriptions tomorrow.

This week's Food Fight matches up the new but highly touted Burger Guys against the legendary Hank's Ice Cream.

To the judging!

The Burger Guys (approximately 20 fluid ounces for $5.50, served in a styrofoam cup)
The Burger Guys is the kind of place that's easy to love; the proprietors aim high, work hard, and they get things right. Really right. And any place that isn't an ice cream shop but still makes its own ice cream is in my permanent good graces.

The vanilla ice cream at the Burger Guys is French vanilla, which is not my preferred style (too eggy), but I must concede it was marvelously creamy and had a beautiful light-yellow hue, flecked with dark motes of vanilla bean. The milkshake was extra thick and frosty cold, just how it should be. The problem was that I could barely taste the distinctive tang and nuttiness of the malt; if it had been brought to me blind I would have thought it was a plain milkshake.

Hank's (approximately 16 fluid ounces for $4.17, served in a styrofoam cup)

Even though it's just a storefront in an unremarkable mini-mall south of Reliant, Hank's feels like a neighborhood ice cream shop in a small town. I don't know how they pull it off. I had never tried Hank's vanilla before - why would I, when I can get banana pudding or sweet potato pie? - but for the sake of you, dear readers, I made the ultimate sacrifice.

Hank's vanilla malt was simple and straightforward. Maybe a little too simple, but people don't order vanilla expecting to be blown away by the flavor profile. Have I mentioned the banana pudding ice cream? The milkshake had plenty of malt flavor, and when the counterwoman handed me the malt, she warned me, unprompted, that it was "really thick," and pointed to the spoon she included with my straw. Well done, Hank's.

The Winner: Hank's, but I'm confident that if I'd asked for extra malt at the Burger Guys this fight would have been a lot closer. And while both were solid efforts, neither one blew me away. The malt I had a couple months back at Cricket's Creamery would have taken this competition. My big quibble with both places (and Cricket's for that matter) is that neither serves the malt in an old-school soda fountain glass nor provides a stainless-steel sidecar. It's a style thing, but it matters.

Next food fight (or maybe the one after next) will be potato salad. Any favorites out there? 

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Matthew Dresden
Contact: Matthew Dresden