I was cruising the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly in Racine, Wisconsin, my hometown. I was after a taste of history – Horlicks Malt Powder. This was a couple of years ago, at what turned out to be the beginning of a prolonged quest.
Malted barley powder is the key ingredient that distinguishes a malt from a milkshake, and Racine is where the Horlick brothers invented and produced it. Actually, when they built their factory there in 1875 they thought they’d invented a new baby food, but it was adults that liked it. They put it into milkshakes and called them malts, and malts engendered malt shops, which are practically responsible for the cultural invention of the American teenager. From the 1930s on, young couples in bobby sox like my parents and their friends jitterbugged to jukebox tunes and fell in love while sharing one malt with two straws.
By the time my parents’ teenage love had resulted in three pre-school children, they were enjoying their malts at home. There was always a jar of Horlicks at the ready in our house. And when my dad made dessert, it was a sundae called a “Dusty Road” – a scoop of vanilla ice cream sprinkled with Horlicks. (Some people add chocolate syrup first, but we weren’t fancy.)
Malt shops, drive-ins, sock hops… that’s all of a past era, but the malt is a staple till today on the menus of hamburger joints and casual restaurants throughout the U.S. A malt is an American thing. There are very few aspects of my heritage that I value or celebrate, but a malt is definitely one of them. For as long as I have lived in Canada I have regretted that the ice cream drink available here is a milkshake in any flavour, but never a malt. So I decided on that visit to buy a jar of Horlicks right from the source to take back home to Toronto. I thought it would be simple.
I looked for store staff to help in my search.
“What do you mean you don’t have Horlicks? It’s made right here in Racine. It was invented here!”
“Never heard of it.”
Well, the grocery clerk was young, what does he know? Racine’s been a rustbelt city since before he was born and, as it turns out, the Horlicks factory had closed.
I had already looked for Horlicks in other supermarkets in other U.S. towns, with no luck, but it was particularly galling to be told ‘never heard of it’ in Racine. My mother grew up there and graduated from Horlick High. My dad grew up there and pitched in a semi-pro baseball league that played at Horlick Field (where the Racine Belles played in the forties.) The big dam where everyone fishes on the local river is Horlick Dam. The name perseveres even though the original factory is now defunct, production moved to India. And malts can still be had all over town.
Click on any photo to enlarge
In fact, those iconic green malt machines used at every soda counter were also invented and manufactured in Racine. When the Horlick brothers saw how their intended baby food was being served, they went to local manufacturer Hamilton Beach and asked them to design and produce a special machine just for mixing malts. Malts then were always served in a tall glass, and beside it the best places always set down that icy cold mixer cup with a leftover little bit extra.
I was running out of time to shop. This was the last grocery store; we had to leave for home.
“I’m sure you can get it in Toronto. I can’t believe you can’t get it there,” says husband, driver, schedule-enforcer.
“I’ve never seen it. No place in Toronto makes malts. I’m sure I can’t find it there.”
“I’m going to find it.” He looks online. He is a magnificent researcher, and in a few minutes says, “Try No Frills.”
That sounded really stupid to me. I shop there all the time and I have never noticed it, and really… it is definitely a ‘frill’.
Back home I walked to the local No Frills four blocks away. I had never noticed it there before, but because I didn’t expect to find it I never really looked for it either. Now I was looking. And OMG it was there!
Weirdly, the label was in Chinese, but I grabbed it and went home to taste it. Genuine Horlicks – delicious as remembered. For a while my life was malts every day, plus malted waffles, malted pancakes, malted chocolate chip cookies (bad idea, too sticky). I put it in everything I ate and used it up quickly, went back to No Frills for more and… gone! They just didn’t have it anymore, ever, and nobody else did either. Remembering the Chinese label, I checked T&T – no dice. Friends were alerted to the search, calls were made to Chinese and British friends. Yes, people in China drink it in milk and it’s in grocery stores in the U.K. too – I brought some back from Manchester, England! But just like Racine, here in Toronto it was not to be found.
Years went by. Malt-free years, for the most part. One memorable Mother’s Day my son Lucas took me to a new spot: an actual malt shop in Toronto, Bean and Baker on Harbord St. Delish and authentic malts, though the place has a very retro, nostalgic vibe. I was still looking for an everyday normal-like-a-milkshake attitude. And I want to make malts at home. So, the malt shop was an exciting treat, but my quest continued.
And now at last comes Nations, a new Canadian supermarket on St. Clair West, my home territory. Food scout extraordinaire Suzanne Long messaged me on her first excursion there with the news that she’d spotted it. Euphoric, I wandered through their massive acreage of parathas, wonton wrappers, hawthorne berries and every variety of ingredient for any food on earth – whatever Torontonians might need to feel at home here at home. In the midst of all that everything, it was hard to find the one thing I wanted.
I was looking in the aisle with the hot chocolate and Ovaltine (don’t be fooled – not equivalent). But that’s not the Nations idea. They must be channeling the Horlick brothers themselves, with their original conception of their product. At the Nations store, Horlicks is shelved with the baby formula!
I bought three large jars, just in case.
– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin and courtesy Bean and Baker
Update : Horlicks now shelved with coffee and hot chocolate.
Suzanne Long, Toronto
Another Horlicks fan here! It’s been difficult to find because of the Canadian ban but your post about Nations has given me hope. Really interesting to hear about its Wisconsin roots too. With its British popularity I’d just assumed Horlicks was born there.
C.K. Kelly Martin, Toronto
Great article! Yes, Horlick brings back so much memories. I think I’ve seen Horlicks at T&T and some Asian supermarkets.
Loved the Horlicks piece. I’m English and we had it at home but as a drink with hot milk. There were no soda fountains or even places selling milk shakes when I was a child. We also had Ovaltine and Milo but If you got a handful of Horlicks in your palm and licked it, that was heaven. Have you tried looking in stores selling Caribbean foods?
Anna Travers, Toronto
That was awesome – the search, the photos and the best ending ever, the recipe!
Melanie Panitch, Toronto
I was such a skinny child it scared my mother. She bought Horlicks and put a heaping table spoon full of it into a cup of powdered skim milk every night, then stirred it up and sat with me until I drank it all. Turns out, I was so skinny because I’m a celiac and this likely contributed to making me even skinnier, but the time spent together was nice. I’ve never found another living soul who knew what Horlicks was. Fascinating article!
Cookie Roscoe, Toronto