Jarling's Custard Cup

Nostalgia in an Ice Cream Cup

Avanti Chajed

Copyright 2018 by Avanti Chajed


Photo of an ice cream cone.

During the summer months sunlight always streams through our kitchen windows, glinting off of the counter tops. On these lazy evenings after our dinner dishes have all been put away, my mother, restless to be outdoors when the weather is so charming, decides that a trip to Jarling’s is in order. My mother, brother and I scramble into the car and my dad slides into the driver’s seat. Our family is ready for another one of our many adventures which have been going on for as long as my eight year old brain can recall. The routine is always the same but there is comfort in the predictability. In the ten minutes it will take to get there, I will try to think of what I want, which flavor will it be this day. But my endeavors to reach a decision usually leave me more confused than when I started. While in line I like watching the people as they struggle to figure out what to order, feeling reassured that trouble making decisions is a common problem. The building itself never seems to change. The tiles on the outside walls are white with cheerful pastel scattered like sprinkles. The menu is written in clean, no nonsense capital letters that tell it like it is. There are three counter windows that all have perpetually long lines on summer days. The clear glass gives a clear view of containers filled with chocolate, sprinkles, bananas and other tempting toppings. Often I’ll stand on my tip toes, wishing that I could sneak a handful from any of the bins. The moment we step outside with our cones in hand the sun sets out to melt the custard into sticky liquid that oozes out onto our hands. Every time I think, “Next time, I’m getting a cup.” But I know the feeling of melting custard running down my hands is half the fun.

Jarling’s Custard Cup has been around for as long as I can remember. Champaign Urbana is home to plenty of ice cream chains with flashy logos and elaborate menus but none compares to the simplicity of Jarling’s. The shop is small and so nondescript that when it’s boarded up for winter you hardly notice it. Spring’s coming is heralded by the crowds of people sitting outside on the day Jarling’s reopens and enjoying their delicious custard in the warm breeze. In a university town like Champaign, it adds much needed energy to life outside of campus town and gives residents and students alike a place to relax. When it closes, the town knows that winter has officially arrived and waits for spring to start the cycle again.

About a block away from Jarling’s is an apartment complex where my parents lived before I was born. The complex later became the home of one of my dad’s grad students and for the few years she lived in town we were regularly invited for dinner with her and her husband. After one such occasion on an evening in July, my mother had the bright idea for all of us to walk over to Jarling’s. The four of us set out with both of our hosts. Six people on a mission. My brother and I followed behind my parents, eagerly waiting for our destination. The summer air clung to the night, blanketing us in warmth and the lights from the city park across the street sparkled and danced. Walking had a nostalgic effect on my parents. “Ma and I used to walk to Custard Cup all the time when we lived here…” my dad started. Out flowed their memories of eating ice cream during their kid-free days. The days when they still had their freedom. I could imagine them strolling out of their home toward Jarling’s, just like the six of us were right now. I felt their closeness while they enjoyed watching the sky deepen into twilight and felt the creamy custard melt in their mouths. It was only possible for me to relive their memories because my senses had the same experiences every time we came. The Custard Cup experience is universal.

Listening to my parents’ musings was a pleasure because it added a deeper connection between the parlor and the town. Jarling’s has been part of the Champaign’s history for longer than my life time. It is an integral part of the community and a place to bring the people together around something that cannot fail to make people happy. On the hottest days of summer, the line snakes its way around the outside walls of the parlor. There are all types of people who come to Jarling’s. Most are families with children anywhere from infancy to teenagers. Some are couples like my parents while others are friends looking for a good time. I have never felt self conscious of who I am or who I’m with while in Jarling’s. The crowd is representative of the entire community with its wide range of ages and ethnicities, all brought together by the pure goodness of custard.

Times have changed. I have changed. I’m in high school now and though I don’t conform to the stereotypical role of a rebellious teenager, hanging out with my family isn’t enough anymore. I like the freedom that friends give and usually wander around the mall with them on Saturday. Through the years our family trips to Jarling’s have dwindled and I wonder if it still holds the same attraction for me that it once did. Maybe being here with friends will make my memories of the parlor more varied. The three of us—Karolina, Joy, and I—arrive and step into the store and I can practically taste the familiar atmosphere and feel the cool touch of the tiles on the wall. We’ve come in the afternoon and there are only a few customers in line. The inside feels the same as it did when I came with my family as a child. I venture to follow Karolina to the other half of the store— the side that my brother and I completely ignored as children, presuming that our side held everything we could ever want—while Joy orders her ice cream at the first counter without a moment’s hesitation. The second part of the menu is a list of snowstorm flavors that range from exotic fruits to Candy Bar favorites. Karolina stands next to me jabbering away. I only half pay attention to what she’s saying, making sure to nod and say “right” every so often while trying to scan through the 50 flavors. Seeing so many options is overwhelming so at the next convenient pause I drag her back to the familiar side of the menu and order a simple scoop in a cup. All three of us pick up our ice cream and step out into the midday sun. “Hey, you guys want to go walk in Hessel Park,” Karolina asks us. Joy readily seconds the motion and I take her lead. So rather than sitting on one of Jarling’s tables and eating, we cross the street to the community park. It isn’t where I expected our outing to go and I am slightly hesitant to follow but when we reach the paved path that winds around the perimeter I realize that I am not breaking an old tradition by straying away from my established routine. I am forming a new one.

My beloved Jarling’s seemed to put its position as a solid rock in my life in jeopardy when they added six large round tables in front of the main entrance. I worried that this addition would change the entire atmosphere of the small parlor, transforming the communal meeting grounds into another impersonal commercial ice cream shop. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I came again with my parents the summer before starting college, there sat three of my friends from the class below me in the table closest to the door. They were celebrating one of the girl’s birthdays and I immediately headed toward them. Apparently I wasn’t the first person they had run into that night while there and I was quickly informed about all of the other people who had already been by. In that moment, I happily realized that the tables only improved the sense of community that Jarling’s offered. By providing a place for people to sit down, the parlor became a place for mingling and socializing.

When I was in college and most of the friends who I would go to Jarling’s with scattered around the country. I didn’t have the courage to go with the new people I met out of fear that the place will lose its magic. My first year of college, the group I hung out with made plans to go to Jarling’s and asked me to join them. I declined the invitation, and a selfish part of me hoped that they would end up not going to the place I have loved since childhood. How could they understand what it meant to me? How could they appreciate the faint smell of custard, chocolate and fruit that wafts through the store, hinting at what is to come? Or love the checkered tiles that make the floor? I felt certain that it would all be lost on them, along with the homey feel of Jarling’s. But over the years the parlor has shown resistance to changing its comfortable atmosphere. Despite the changes that I have gone through in my life, Jarling’s has remained very much the same and so my memories have remained unsullied by the passage of time. True, some of the physical details are different, but none have taken the heart and soul away from this ice cream shop beloved by all.

Avanti Chajed is an educator and a current doctoral student at Columbia University. She is passionate about improving education for underprivileged students and enjoys running, writing, traveling and baking.

Avanti was born in Champaign, Illinois to parents who immigrated from India. She spent most of her life in Champaign, having attended school in town and then college at the University of Illinois to get a degree in Elementary Education, and grew to have many favorite places in the small town. After her graduation, she went to India and taught English for 8 months. While living in India was an adventure, she decided to come back to the US and taught at low income schools before moving to Finland for her masters degree. She will spend the next five years at Teacher's College at Columbia University working on her Doctorate in Education.

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