Graphic by Devin Cox

This piece comes from Gravy #47, which celebrates all things sweet.

Te Quiero, La Michoacana
Mexican paletas find a following in Memphis 
by Mark Camarigg

Every morning, twenty-five-year-old Rafael Gonzalez delivers coolers laden with homemade ice cream and paletas, or popsicles, to his three Memphis-area La Michoacana ice cream shops. His recipe is simple: fresh fruit, fresh cream, and sugar. Horchata (a blend of rice milk and cinnamon) and pine nut are the most popular flavors, along with avocado, strawberry, and vanilla. Gonzalez sources dulce de leche from his father’s ice cream shop in Chihuahua, Mexico. And he imports ice cream making equipment from the tiny village of Tocumbo, in the state of Michoacan.

Ice cream making is a Gonzalez family tradition. Says Rafael, “My father is sixty-five, and he started selling paletas when he was fifteen in Tocumbo. I started when I was seven years old, and my dad taught me how to make them. He gave me my recipes, and I’ll show them to my kids.”

The history of paletas is tangled in a seventy-year-old ice cream making tradition that originated in Tocumbo. In the 1940s, cousins Agustín Andrade and Ignacio Alcázar left behind field work in their native Michoacan and began opening paleterías (shops selling popsicles and ice cream) in Mexico City. Alcázar soon discovered he could make more money financing the paleterías of others than running them himself. He began lending money to Tocumbo natives who wanted to open ice cream stores. Decades later, an estimated 15,000 La Michoacana paleterías dot Mexico.

La Michoacana is not a corporation or a franchise, but a very loose network of independent businesses with no central marketing, accounting, or advertising. La Michoacana is not a registered brand in Mexico. Anyone with an ice-cream maker and a storefront is free to use it. The paletería supply company in Tocumbo makes money selling equipment, ingredients, and marketing advice to entrepreneurs.

La Michoacana stores hit the United States around 1990. Proprietors like Gonzalez have adopted the La Michoacana name to gain name recognition with Mexican customers. “If you go to Mexico, there are more La Michoacanas than there are McDonald’s,” he says. “I get a lot of people from St. Louis and Little Rock. They say, ‘When I was a kid, my dad would send me to the ice cream store, and now I can come here.'”

Gonzalez’s first Memphis location, on busy Winchester Road, initially catered to a Mexican clientele. Now, Gonzalez says, “I’m surprised by the response we get at our other stores. It’s probably 70% American and 30% Mexican patrons.”

Buoyed by success, Gonzalez will open a fourth Memphis-area location and a new store in Nashville in 2013. More operators are getting into the business, but Rodriguez is convinced he offers something that the start-up paleterías can’t touch.

“I won’t change from what I’m doing here. If I change, it won’t be La Michoacana.” The other guys, he says, will never be able to recreate the flavor of the La Michoacana recipes. Nor can they top the magic of the La Michoacana name.

Mark Camarigg is the publications manager for Living Blues magazine at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.