September 29, 2010 9:56:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
For Ray Merchant, serving up smooth, silky frozen custard cones, sundaes, splits and other sweet bliss is a far cry from the gritty sleuthing he did as a railroad detective for three decades. But the retiree is right where he wants to be -- living a simpler life and doling out smiles.
After the former detective and his wife, Judy, wrapped up careers in St. Louis, Mo., they returned to their hometown of Vernon, Ala. While there was plenty to like about coming back to the South, the couple missed their favorite treat, so popular in St. Louis -- frozen custard, similar to ice cream, but richer, creamier.
"The closest we could find to get it was in Tuscaloosa," Ray said.
The Merchants solved the problem by opening Mimi''s Ice Cream in Caledonia in December 2006 and introduced frozen custard to a whole new audience. One of the best aspects of the new enterprise? "Getting to know folks," said Ray, who especially enjoys the people part. "People like when you know them. I saw it when I was in restaurants on the road all the time with the railroad. It''s what I try to do here."
What is it?
Frozen custard is a gourmet ice cream treat tracing back to Coney Island, N.Y., where it emerged as a carnival favorite at the turn of the century. Its popularity quickly grew, and it was the rage of east coast resort areas. In 1933, Chicago was responsible for bringing frozen custard to the Midwest for the World''s Fair; it became fashionable in cities like Milwaukee, Wis., and Kansas City, Mo.
The slow churn cold dessert looks much like ice cream, but has a silkier texture and consistency, thanks to the higher percentage of butterfat and egg yolk solids. Using a process called overrun, air is blended into the mixture of ingredients until its volume increases by approximately 20 percent. By comparison, ice cream can have an overrun of up to 100 percent, meaning that half of the final product is composed of air.
When it came to the new shop, Ray explained, "We figured we''d better use ''ice cream'' in the name, because people in the South, when they hear custard, they think of something different than frozen custard."
In a neat, clean building on Wolfe Road, across from the YMCA and Ola J. Pickett Park, Ray makes desserts like Mimi''s Southern Delight (with hot fudge caramel and pecans), Funky Monkey (banana, chopped almonds, caramel), Bada-Bing (cherries and hot fudge), Toffee Crunch, German Chocolate, Strawberry Shortcake and Mississippi Mud.
The shop is open seven days a week -- from 1-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 2-9 p.m. Sundays. As days shorten, Ray will begin closing a little earlier, and he anticipates closing for a short while during the deep of winter.
"But I''d be happy to be here every day year-round if there''s a demand for it," he smiled.
His wife interjected, "He''s not the type who''s going to sit around and watch TV. This business is his baby."
Judy is the "Mimi" the store is named for, the suggestion of an quick-thinking 8-year-old granddaughter.
"We don''t take any shortcuts; we use only the best quality ingredients," she said. "We use a variety of flavorings and use our own special recipes." They also make the cakes used in the shortcakes and Mississippi Mud dessert topped with custard, hot fudge and whipped cream.
Take your pick
While many frozen custard shops make only vanilla and chocolate, Ray and Judy''s flavors also include peach, strawberry, butter pecan and their newest, orange dreamsicle. And yes, it tastes refreshingly like the orange-flavored push-up treat that melted down our chins as children.
Toppings run the gamut from pecans to pineapple, butterscotch to Butterfinger. To round out the menu, Ray also serves smoothies, milkshakes, 12 flavors of sno-cones ... and even cold pickles and "picklesicles." "Picklesicles are just frozen pickle juice; little kids love them!" Judy said. Customers can custom order custard pies, too.
And don''t forget the "concretes." A concrete is a mix of custard and all the toppings of your choice, blended so thick and creamy it can be served upside down and won''t fall out of the cup.
When not making custard, Ray and "Mimi" soak up life at its quieter pace and are happy they opened the "mom and pop" shop. It scores points with their small army of grandchildren, too.
"The grandkids all think it''s special; they love it!" Judy grinned. "They say all the kids are jealous of them because their grandparents own an ice cream store."
(Note: Mimi''s Ice Cream is located at 9677 Wolfe Road in Caledonia. Their phone number is 205-712-2473.)
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.