|This is not the Jumbo Atomic Hot Fudge Sundae—that has three scoops—but the more modest Atomic Hot Fudge Sundae.|
Summer is a time of relaxation and the enjoyment of life's simple pleasures. To set aside quotidian concerns—our troubling political situation, the endless demands of work, complicated medical conditions that require surgery—and just have fun.
So for today, and the unforeseeable future, the blog, if not necessarily its author, will concern itself with the pleasures of summertime. For those who like to comment, it might be a number of days before I can sit up, read, vet and post them, and your patience as always is appreciated. I did think about just leaving the comments section open, but that's like handing my blog over to lunatics, and I'm not doing it.
When I wrote the following, I had been home on paternity leave for seven months. This originally ran under the headline "Life, Treat Sweet at Margie's." For many years the Wicker Park institution kept a stack of photocopies next to the cash register, which pleased me greatly. It's still there, if you want to go, approaching its 100th year in business.
I do not believe in angelic voices, interceding in our daily lives. Nevertheless, a voice did speak to me last week. It said, clearly, unmistakably, "Go to Margie's and get a sundae."
To be honest, I had been feeling a little down. The routine had become very, well, routine. "Go to Margie's," the voice said. "And get a sundae."
So I went. Driving down Western Avenue, I tried to remember how long it had been. At least six years. Maybe eight, since I last tasted that gorgeous bittersweet hot fudge sauce. And Margie, a tiny, ancient woman, sitting beside the cash register. Would she still be alive? Would the place even be open?
Six years! Maybe eight. The Republicans are right. Our values ARE skewed. What could I have been doing all this time that was so important I couldn't go get a sundae? Shameful.
From the outside, the place at 1960 N. Western is the same. Same 1940s sign. Same silk flowers and china dolls in the windows. The menu still offers 50 different ice cream sundaes, with names like the Zombie and the Astronaut and the Coco-Loco.
The choice was easy. I ordered the Jumbo Fudge Atomic Sundae. Just placing the order was a joy: "I'll have the Jumbo Fudge Atomic Sundae, please," I said.
Say it out loud once and you'll see what I mean.
The Jumbo Fudge Atomic Sundae was exactly as it should be -- a white clamshell filled with three scoops of ice cream, covered by a lattice of hard chocolate dribbled over the top. (The lattice is what makes the sundae "atomic"). Whipped cream and chopped nuts on top of that. Plus a cherry. Plus two sugar cookies.
Alongside, a stainless steel urn, filled with hot fudge sauce. Just as perfect as before—hot, rich, deep, dark, bittersweet.
There was one difference, however. Margie Poulos was gone. She passed away just last year, at age 80. But Peter George Poulos, her son, was there, and he slipped into the booth and told me the Margie's story.
His grandfather, also named Peter George Poulos, came to Chicago from Greece and, 75 years ago this year, opened an ice cream parlor at the exact spot where it stands today.
The grandfather's son, George Peter Poulos—the current owner's father—met a girl named Margie Michaels.
"They got engaged in that booth over there," says Poulos, pointing to a spot a few feet away. "We call it Lover's Lane."
That was in 1933. Countless other couples have used the booth to pop the question. "You should be here on Valentine's Day—the joint is up for grabs," says Poulos.
"People come back here to get engaged because their parents were engaged here."
Poulos was born in 1936, and grew up, literally, in the store. "My father made up a cradle in the back of the candy case," he says.
From the beginning, Margie's candy, the ice cream, the fudge sauce, was homemade, and nobody ever saw a reason to change it. "My mother was offered a fortune for the fudge recipe," he says.
Fame has brushed against the little ice cream shop. Al Capone was a customer. The Beatles came by, after their Comiskey Park concert. Poulos, who is a podiatrist, was at a hospital doing his residency when his mother called.
"She said, 'Hey, some English guys are here from Sox park,' " remembers Poulos. "I said, 'Ma, there's no English baseball team.' And she said, 'No, dummy. It's the Beatles.' "
When Margie died, Poulos took over, moving his podiatry practice across the street, so he could better run the place. Lunchtime finds him there, along with his wife and their newborn son, named George Peter Poulos, after his granddad.
"He loves the taste of ice cream," says Poulos, who gave the infant a fingerful of Margie's 18 percent butterfat frozen treasure when he was a week old.
Might there be a chance that baby George will be running Margie's 75 years from now? Following in the footsteps of his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents?
"The little guy?" Poulos says, as if he never considered the question before. "I don't want him to be a foot doctor. I hope he will grow up here, like I did."
Poulos thinks he has something good to pass along.
"There are so few businesses that children want, because they see their parents work so hard, killing themselves," he says. "This is fun. You make people happy. It's not a tough life. You can walk around to your customers and say 'Hi' and be proud of what you're doing."
I finished scraping the white clamshell clean with my spoon and made sure that not another iota of fudge could be dredged up out of the steel urn. Then I licked the spoon.
I paid my bill -- the Jumbo Atomic Fudge Sundae cost $4; less than some places charge for a bottle of beer.
I can't tell you how happy I felt leaving Margie's. Maybe it was enzymes from the fudge, working on my brain. Maybe it was the infectious cheer of Peter Poulos. Maybe it was the thought of baby George being groomed to make the secret fudge sauce for me when I am old and gray and will need it more than ever.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 5, 1996