I’m from Canton, Ohio–the meat-and-potatoes middle of the country. A town most famous for being home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and lots of cream soup–based casseroles. It’s the kind of Midwestern place where the food is abundant and uncomplicated, often forgettable and occasionally sublime. The Canton-born Bittner, a 90-year-old ice cream sundae, falls into the latter category and remains one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten, beating out my new favorites like Milk Bar’s cereal milk ice cream and my old standbys like Nestle Drumsticks.
The Bittner is a sundae created by Taggart’s Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor that opened its doors in 1926. Taggart’s looks nearly the same almost 100 years later—blue and white tile floors, sticky wooden booths, and a marble bar—and it’s still serving the same kind of food it was serving during the roaring 20s: overflowing sloppy joes, thick malts, tuna melts on white bread, and tangy phosphates from the soda fountain. The whole place is a trip back in time, but the thing people get most nostalgic for is the Bittner, a frozen delight that’s kind of like a sundae, sort of like a milkshake, and a little bit like a Wendy’s Frosty®.
A full three-quarter pound of homemade hard ice cream is delivered in a tall, clear glass. Most places measure their ice cream in scoops, but in Canton, you get it in pounds. A while ago, the owners bought glasses sized to fit exactly three-quarter pounds of packed ice cream. Scoopers weigh it out by filling the glass to the brim, no scales required. That hunk of ice cream is blended with “two generous pumps” of chocolate syrup until it's just combined. The result is thick, creamy ice cream, like a milkshake without the milk, and right on the verge of melting. It comes topped with super salty roasted pecan halves from Georgia and a crown of whipped cream. A long silver spoon stuck in the side of the glass ensures that each bite features silky ice cream, a jumble of crunchy pecans, and whipped cream.
Like any good hometown-famous food, the Bittner has a much-debated origin story. I’ve heard different variations on it my whole life, most recently by Jimmy, a nephew of Ernie Schott, the guy who’s owned Taggart’s for the past 30 years. He claims that two boys with the last name Bittner liked to play baseball around the corner from the shop and would come in afterwards asking for an extra-thick milkshake. Officially, I’ll go with the story that has had a spot on Taggart’s brochures since its 80th birthday.
Legend has it that in the 1930s, the owner of Bittner’s Grocery Store, a local market, sponsored a little league team that had a sweet tooth. After the games, the Bittner’s delivery truck driver, Bunny Artman, would chauffeur the players home, stopping first at Taggart’s for a frozen treat with the team. At Bunny’s request, the Taggart’s fountain man would make him an ultra-thick milkshake covered in pecans. The test to see if it was thick enough? Bunny stood on a chair and dropped a long silver soda spoon into the glass. If the spoon landed upright smack in the middle of the ice cream, the texture was just right.
And thus, the Bittner was born, and soon started appearing on the menu. Though Bunny and his team are long gone, the Taggart’s crew has refined and perfected the Bittner, giving it a place of honor at the very top of the menu.
Though it’s always been a part of my life, I didn’t always order the Bittner. When I was younger I wanted something sweeter, richer, like a hot fudge sundae with two scoops of ice cream covered in sprinkles. But as I got older, I understood the magic of salty, buttery roasted pecans and the just-beginning-to-melt ice cream. Now I crave Bittners even more than I did when I lived down the road from Taggart’s.
The only thing that keeps me from being desperately homesick for it is that you can recreate a Bittner (or at least a version of it) at home: Roast 1 cup of pecan halves with 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter and 2 teaspoons of fine sea salt in the oven. Once roasted, blend 4 scoops (about 8oz) of your favorite vanilla ice cream with 2 tablespoons Hershey’s chocolate syrup, and serve it in your tallest glass. A spray of canned whipped cream or a dollop of homemade, and you’re set.
Whenever I try to recreate a Bittner in my faraway Texas kitchen, I feel nostalgic for my family. After all, I’m not the first member of the Rice family to enjoy a Bittner. With each bite of salt-flecked ice cream, I think of my grandma going to Taggart’s after football games when she was in high school. She was a majorette in the marching band–so I picture her wearing her white tasseled boots and a gold-and-blue skirt. I think of her and my grandpa taking his prized red Corvette out for an early date before they married in 1964, stopping for a cheeseburger and a Bittner at Taggart’s.
Canton has changed—the downtown scene is less bustling than it once was, and hardly anyone under 65 is out at Taggart’s for date night—but the Bittner remains true. The last time I was home visiting family in the middle of the summer, we stopped by. The waitress came by with a pad of paper, and the seven of us ordered Bittners without hesitation.
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