“Birthday celebrations are a cakewalk at Sonic Drive-In as the nation’s largest drive-in restaurant chain celebrates its 50th Birthday with a Birthday Cake Shake. Sonic invites customers to share in the celebration with a 50th Birthday Cake Shake: a tasty blend of real white sheet cake, icing, soft serve and colorful sprinkles all in one cup.”
— Sonic press release, May 1, 2003
In May 2003, Sonic Drive-In had a Birthday Cake Shake on their menu, all month, for one month only. There was a Sonic on Assembly Street in Columbia, S.C., where I lived at the time, and I got a shake every day I could all month long. And then it was gone. I was 21 years old.
You know the McRib people? The people who get all pumped when the McRib is available? Who travel around to where it’s released? Who proselytize the wonder that is the McRib? I am like them, but for a menu item that never comes back. I got my hopes up in 2013, thinking, well, it’s the 60th anniversary of Sonic, maybe they’ll bring it back. They did not.
The Sonic Birthday Cake Shake was real. You know when you eat cake and ice cream on the same plate at a kid’s birthday party and they touch? It was that, drinkable. The cake crumbs gave the shake texture. The icing gave it varying flavors. The ice cream, you know, is ice cream.
Another local fast-food-itarium has a “birthday cake shake.” It is an abomination. I had one a few years ago. The texture was wrong and the taste was wrong. Like they didn’t use actual cake, or they didn’t blend it right, and they used some kind of strange flavoring compound to try to make up the actual taste of birthday cake (like that weird mixed shooter they make with Baileys or Franjelico where it tastes like cake, but it isn’t cake, like it has a baked taste, but it’s just chemicals and liquid). And then the biggest sin, and this they do with all their shakes, is the shakes come frozen in plastic cups with foil yogurt lids. When someone orders one, they pull the frozen cup and stick it under a blender. From the drive-through at this particular establishment near my house, I can see this sin being committed. That is not a milkshake, my friends.
One of my grandmothers worked as a soda jerk in a drugstore in the 1940s. She scooped ice cream. She made real milkshakes. When my dad was trying to gain weight for sports in school, she made him milkshakes with raw eggs. I’ve had one. You can’t even tell. A real milkshake is a symphony of creaminess and sweetness and refreshingness. There’s a place in Athens, Ga. I go for a shake every time I’m there, because they make them right, and they even come in those paper cones in the metal holders. For the record, I don’t really like dairy, or milk, or ice cream very much, but when you find the pinnacle, the Platonic ideal of something, even if it’s not your favorite, you can still appreciate the greatness. You order the shake. I usually can only have a few sips, but in those sips, I swear, something transcendental happens.
So yesterday I got an email that a local burger establishment was celebrating its 5th birthday with free birthday cake shakes as a thank-you to anyone who came to the restaurant today. Last night, I wrote a heartfelt plea to my friends to meet me out for that shake.
“So, Public Service Announcement to you bros. I got an email about this shake today cause I’m on some Yeah! Burger email list and I feel like it is very important that I pass it on because of the significance The Birthday Cake Shake had in my history and how much it mattered to my life.”
— email from Jessica Clary to assorted friends, June 9, 2015
My friends assembled. We went to YEAH! Burger. We got the shakes.
And they were good, but the texture was wrong. The taste was there, but the original Sonic-y ground-up-cake-in-ice-cream just wasn’t there.
From Cantonese, and now in English, there’s the saying “Chasing the dragon.” Drug addicts fantasize that the next dose or hit is going to be THE ONE, but it never happens. The ultimate experience with the drug isn’t there, but the idea of it is there. I don’t think I’m addicted to the shake itself, I am fascinated and intrigued and driven by the PURSUIT of this perfect shake.
There are three ways this can work out, I guess:
1. Sonic brings back the shake, it’s as good as I remember, everything is amazing.
2. Sonic never brings back the shake. I never experience anything like this shake. I chase this dragon for the rest of my life.
And then the worst, 3. Sonic brings back the shake, and it’s not how I remember it. Either they change it, or my brain synapses don’t connect the same way they did 12 years ago and it doesn’t deliver.
Dear Sonic, I implore you, do this for me.