A white building with wooden icicles hanging from its roof stands out on St. Louis’s Chippewa Street, which is otherwise lined with fast-food restaurants, nondescript brick houses, and small businesses. This cartoonish structure is Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a family-owned business that has been serving concretes, sundaes, and other frozen treats for 86 years.
In this city, where I grew up, Ted Drewes is a summer highlight. As far as things to do here, it ranks right up there with Cardinals baseball games and the two free beers you get on a tour of the Anheuser Busch brewery. A sort of mythology surrounds it; the custard recipe is kept secret and its owners are local celebrities. In fact there was a girl in my Catholic high school who I don’t think I ever spoke to, but I—and everyone else—knew that she was Ted Drewes’ granddaughter.
I am now many years, and half a world away, from my Catholic high school days in St. Louis. I live in Jerusalem as an observant Jew, after having converted several years ago. But on trips home to St. Louis, Ted Drewes has long been one of the places I make sure to visit, and after some discoveries I made recently, it will continue to be part of my itinerary.
It turns out that aside from being a city landmark, Ted Drewes is also one of a small handful of kosher-certified eateries in St. Louis. And the story of how this business in a traditionally German and Italian neighborhood became kosher, has emerged as a sort of urban legend—at least around Friday night Shabbat dinner tables.
When I first heard the story it went something like this: an Orthodox Jewish cardiologist performed life-saving surgery on Ted Drewes Jr., the business’s then owner, who eventually decided to make the outlet kosher so that the doctor and his family, who had been wanting to try the famed frozen custard for years, could finally eat there. I continued to hear similar versions of this tale, even back in Jerusalem, when I mentioned that I was from St. Louis.
Long intrigued by the story, I decided during a visit to St. Louis this summer to check it out further, to find out who this doctor was and how this happened.
I got in touch with Ted Drewes Jr., now 88 and retired, who told me that the story of how Ted Drewes became kosher began in the late 1990s, when he experienced complications from prostate surgery. “I had to get nine units of blood, and there were about eight hours when I was really under the gun, and they didn’t know if I would make it,” Drewes recalled. But for much of that time, the cardiologist on duty had stayed by his bedside, Drewes said.
“So, aware at the time that I also soon needed heart bypass surgery, I decided right then and there to make that doctor my cardiologist,” he said. Over the next few years, the doctor not only operated on him, but the two became friends. The doctor soon started asking about the ingredients in the custard, trying to figure out how easy it would be to get it certified kosher, Drewes recalled.
And when Drewes mentioned the doctor’s name, my heart jumped and my body shivered. My family had also experienced the kindness and dedication of this Craig Reiss. Although I have never met him, I knew that for years he had been the cardiologist of my brother, who died last year of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive neuromuscular disease. When my brother passed away, Reiss was the only physician who called my parents to offer condolences. And it was partially due to new approaches to heart health in muscular dystrophy patients that my brother, under the care of Reiss, even lived until the age of 33, more than a decade beyond medical expectations.
So I got in touch with Reiss, too, who indeed remembered my brother. Then he chuckled when I asked him about Ted Drewes.
“When people in the Jewish community see me they say, ‘That’s Dr. Reiss who made Ted Drewes kosher,’ instead of ‘That’s Dr. Reiss the cardiologist,’” Reiss said. But he said his role was simple: After becoming friends with Drewes, he put the local kosher certification board in touch with the custard stand, and those rabbis soon determined that the ingredients in the secret recipe turned out to all be kosher. Today a small white piece of paper taped near the order windows declares all the custard, and all but a few toppings certified kosher.
Reiss admitted to “occasionally splurging” on the custard, even though it probably is not the most heart-healthy food.
A few days after I talked to Reiss I headed to Ted Drewes for some custard. It was a Sunday afternoon and the place was packed with people waiting in long lines at the walk-up order windows and others enjoying their custard in the parking lot, sitting on benches, street curbs, and in the beds of pick-up trucks.Accompanied by my Catholic parents and Jewish children, I ordered what I have since I was a little girl: the Cardinal Sin sundae, custard-topped with hot fudge and tart cherries. Now that I had a more complete version of the story about how Ted Drewes became kosher, I reflected on how it unexpectedly brings together seemingly disparate, but important, parts of my life; and I realized how healthy this custard is, at least for my heart.