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In this episode of CuriosiD, we answer the questions:
“What is Superman ice cream? And where does it come from?”
The short answers
The earliest mention of a three-flavored ice cream called “Superman” we found dates to a 1941 newspaper ad from Lancaster, Wisconsin. Follo’s News Stand sold the treat as a 25¢ pint that came as a “3-color brick with whole nut meats.” 25 years later, a cooperative of hundreds of independent dairies known as the All-Star Dairy Association put out a line of Superman-licensed ice cream and offered rights to non-members for the products.
The origins of Superman ice cream are complicated by its flavor, which varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Many use cherry, vanilla and Blue Moon, but other combinations exist, including cotton candy, lemon and bubblegum. The most consistent feature of Superman is its iconic colors: red, yellow and blue.
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s dessert.
Inside Ray’s Ice Cream in Royal Oak, Ryan Aretha tends to a revolving door of hungry customers. It’s his third summer on the job, but the small old-timey shop has been open since 1958. The shift manager has noticed most people come for flavors with local flair. And Superman ice cream is a consistent hit.
“You know, we’re in Michigan. The kids love that one,” says Aretha. “They love the colors.”
A kid sitting nearby is eating a cone of Ray’s Superman as we speak. It’s a tie-dyed mess. There are three distinct swirls of red, blue and yellow in one scoop. The colors blend as it melts down into a gooey puddle on the table — mom’s nearby with napkins.
If anything, Superman ice cream seems to take inspiration from the colors of the superhero’s costume. But everything else about it can vary including the flavors. Aretha lists two combinations.
“Both of them consist of cherry and Blue Moon. But then the difference is the yellow. Some do lemon and some do vanilla,” says Aretha. “Here, we do vanilla.”
Each color of Superman can be something different, depending on who’s making the ice cream. The red can be cherry, strawberry Redpop or cotton candy. The yellow can be vanilla, lemon or banana. And the blue is not always but typically Blue Moon, which is its own mystery. People say it tastes like anything from pineapple to marshmallows.
Not only do the flavors change from place to place, but Aretha says some ice cream shops skip out on variety altogether.
“Some of them just do straight vanilla, but it’s colored. And so people think that it tastes different but it really doesn’t.”
The differences play out in branding, too. And it may help avoid legal troubles. DC Comics owns the trademark for the name “Superman,” and the company has taken others to court for copyright infringement of the character. Maybe that’s why there’s lots of suspiciously similar ice cream flavors sold under names like “Super Scoop,” “Tie-Dye Burst,” and my personal favorite, “Scooperman.”
Made in the Mitten?
At Stroh’s Ice Cream Parlour in Wyandotte, they call it Super Rainbow. It’s a big seller, but not everyone is a fan.
“I think it’s the American Cheese of ice cream,” says store owner Kirsten Labadie.
Still, she understands it’s all the same Superman for her patrons. Labadie says you can only find the flavor in Michigan and a few select places in the Midwest. And that limited availability is a major selling point.
“People who used to live here who now live out of state and now they’re telling all of their friends, ‘Oh, you got to try this. You got to try this.’ I mean, I do that all the time. You got to get it in Michigan, you have to come see me to get it,” says Labadie.
Like many, Labadie says the true origin of Superman ice cream lies within the tale of its distinct flavors.
“To my understanding, it always originated in Michigan,” says Labadie. “Mainly because of the original three flavors: the Blue Moon, the Redpop and the lemon. The Redpop being a Faygo-based flavor, a Michigan-based company.”
Faygo‘s strawberry-flavored Redpop dates to the early 20th Century in Detroit. Blue Moon’s origins are trickier to nail down. A company in Wisconsin claimed a trademark for the flavor, saying it’s been in use since 1939. But there are examples of Blue Moon ice cream in other states years earlier.
We do know where Labadie gets her Superman ice cream from.
The hard scoop
Independent Dairy in Monroe has been a family-run business since 1934. Behind its storefront is an ice cream factory. There’s a maze of pasteurizers and conveyer belts, and tubs of ice cream are stacked to the ceilings of its freezer warehouse. Owner Jeffrey Hutchison says Superman is his top-selling ice cream flavor and he sells it to stores across the state. He points to the three-barrel freezer where the flavors mix before they’re shot out to make its signature kaleidoscopic blend. It’s a big metal contraption connected to an array of pipes.
“You flavor the Blue Moon in this tank. And then you flavor the vanilla in this tank. And the cherry in this tank,” says Hutchison. “And then it goes through the freezer, freezes to the walls. It’s shaved off a blade and it forces it through. And we run 1,200 gallons an hour.”
Independent Dairy does not claim to be the original creator of Superman. And it’s not the only producer of it. There are a handful of other ice cream manufacturers, most based in the Midwest, that sell the flavor. But Hutchison says his family has been making it for over 50 years, which means the treat goes back at least to the 1970s.
Yet Hutchison thinks Superman goes back much earlier.
“I heard it was in the 30s. The late 30s. And it started in Detroit,” he says.
Superman, the hero, first debuted in comics around that time in 1938, during an ice cream boom. Many Americans turned to sweets during Prohibition and so did some breweries.
Hutchison thinks it may have been Stroh’s in Detroit that invented Superman as we know it today, but he says he’s not sure.
“I don’t know. I was not around,” Hutchison laughs. “That’s just hearsay.”
A spokesperson for the current owner of Stroh’s says they do not know if the company invented it.
Ice cream store owners say a constant churn of ideas is key to their success in the business. Jason Eddleston is the “chief scooper” at Ray’s Ice Cream in Royal Oak. He says that’s why there are so many variations on Superman and several claims to its invention.
“Metro Detroit, Michigan as a whole has always been one of the entrepreneurial hubs in this country,” says Eddleston. “Whether you look at the automotive industry… there’s always been a lot of great thinkers and great tinkerers here.”
As for the inventor of this red, yellow and blue cosmic treat, even Clark Kent would have a hard time getting to the bottom of that story.
About the listener
As a lifelong Detroiter, Julia Callis says Superman ice cream was not easy to find.
“Ice cream parlors were a bit of a scarcity when I was growing up,” says Callis. “For the most part, there wasn’t always a place to get a good hard scoop.”
Callis started wondering about Superman as she thought about regional delicacies in Michigan. Still, it’s not something she’s had recently.
“I think it may be something you grow out of,” says Callis. “Don’t hate me for saying something like that.”
Callis, an artist, still has some lingering questions about Superman ice cream.
“Do I even like it? I don’t know!”
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