Another instalment in our weekly summer series exploring the origins of Ontario’s signature foods.
One of summer’s most fleeting pleasures is stopping for ice cream — whether it’s flagging down a soft-serve truck as it tootles along, visiting the neighbourhood parlour where everybody takes their kids, or pausing en route to an annual vacation spot. They’re all special, but Hewitt’s Dairy Bar is perhaps more special than most.
Located near Hagersville, midway between Hamilton and Port Dover, it opened in 1962 as an offshoot of the 130-year-old Hewitt’s Dairy. Marie and Howard Hewitt ran it together until Howard (a great-nephew of the dairy’s founder) died in 1994. Marie retained ownership until 2014, when she sold the dairy and the dairy bar to Gay Lea. But the change in management hasn’t dimmed local affection for the modest ice-cream stop and lunch counter.
“People come for the nostalgia of it,” says assistant manager and cook Trudee Reed, who’s worked at the dairy bar since 1987. They also come for the ice cream — still made at Hewitt’s Dairy — probably because “it’s made with real cream,” she says.
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“You read the ingredients when you buy [ice cream] in the grocery store: it will say ice milk. It makes a difference in the flavour — calorie-wise too,” she says. “Every year, they try to introduce a new flavour. If it sells good, they’ll continue on with it.” This year’s addition is Tracks of 1867, a white-chocolate, strawberry-ripple, graham-cracker salute to Canada 150.
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Handmade burgers are actually the biggest food attraction (Hewitt’s goes through 200 pounds of meat per week), but nostalgia is what keeps the customers coming back to the diner-like dairy bar. “We’ve got a big long counter with stools. Our slogan is ‘Come meet your friends,’” Reed says. “It’s a lot of the locals, plus we’re local ourselves, so it’s a real friendly atmosphere.”
“Generations of people have gone there; I remember going there with my grandparents,” says union staff representative Terri Monture, who lives in Toronto but grew up on the Six Nations reserve. “It’s actually smack between Six Nations and New Credit, so it’s right across the road from the rezzes, and you see whole families there after lacrosse games or ball games, people on their bikes who’ve gone down to Port Dover, families picking up big tubs of ice cream for picnics,” she says.
“There’s usually a lineup. The ice cream is wonderful, and they have the hugest selection. The lineup is great, because then you can look at the flavours you want.” Monture extols the old-fashioned options like maple walnut, Burgundy cherry, butter pecan, and “tin roof, with big chunks of caramel in it.” But her favourite is orange pineapple: “It’s so sweet, but it’s got big huge chunks of pineapple in it.
“Everybody loves Hewitt’s because they are so old-school. It’s one of the few places I would call neutral territory,” she says, adding that even when the local community was bitterly divided over a land-claim dispute in 2006, “Native people stopped going to Caledonia” — but not to Hewitt’s.
“Hewitt’s has been such a part of my life. One of my earliest memories is being woken up after a day at the lake to go in and have ice cream. My grandparents used to take me there for lunch. I’ve stopped there on the way home from Port Dover more times than I can count,” Monture says. “That tradition is still happening: I took my kids there. Some people on the rez, probably their great-grandchildren are going there now.”
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.