History of Ice Cream

True or false

1. Ice cream will cool you off on a hot summer day.
2. Americans invented the dessert.
3. Since mechanical refrigeration techniques were not developed until late in the nineteenth century, ice cream is obviously a recent arrival to man’s dessert table.

ice cream
If you answered “false” to all three of the above statements, you’ve proved you really have the scoop on man’s favorite frosty confection. In fact, three answers of TRUE would place you among the majority of Americans, who are ice-cold when it comes to the finer points of ice cream lore.

First, ice cream is not a cooler. Oh, it may cool your taste buds momentarily, and its psychological effect may convince you that you’re cooling off. But ice cream is chock-full of calories, the unit of measurement of heat. So, the ultimate effect of a bowlful of ice cream is to make you warmer, not cooler! Which brings us to the History of Ice Cream.

Modern American refrigeration techniques and ice cream infatuation notwithstanding, the frozen dessert is neither a recent concoction nor a product of Yankee ingenuity. Most historians would trace the first bowl of ice cream to 15th or 16th century Italy, or perhaps England, but the story of ice cream’s rise to gustatory prominence is a good deal more interesting than a simple date.

In ancient Rome, the Emperor Nero had snow transported from nearby mountains to cool his wine cellar, and reportedly concocted some of the first water-ice desserts by mixing the snow with honey, juices, and fruit. But the first frozen dessert made from milk didn’t reach Europe until the thirteenth century, when Marco Polo returned from the Orient with a recipe for a milk-ice, presumably similar to sherbet.

Improvements in ice and sherbet-making probably led to the invention of ice cream some time in the sixteenth century. We know that early in that century Italian noblemen were enjoying a frozen milk product called “flower of milk.” Yet Anglophiles may proudly point to a 15th century manuscript reporting on the coronation of Henry V that mentions a dessert called creme frez. If creme frez was indeed ice cream, then the manuscript proves that the reputedly Italian invention was actually being made in England before the sixteenth century.

Italian ice cream arrived in France in 1533, along with Catherine de Medici and her retinue of chefs, when the fourteen-year-old Florentine moved to Paris to marry King Henry II. (Modern French cooking, by the way, is actually Italian in origin, descended from the Florentine cuisine of Catherine’s chefs.) For many years, the chefs of various French noblemen tried to keep their recipes for ice cream a secret from other chefs and from their masters, who were frequently astounded by their cooks’ talent for serving a cold dessert even in the warmest weather.

Ice cream remained a treat for the rich and regal until 1670, when Paris’s first cafe, the Procope, opened its doors and made the frigid dessert available to the masses for the first time. Other cafes quickly followed including the Cafe Napolitain, whose proprietor, a Monsieur Tortoni, concocted the creamy delight that still bears his name.

The first mention of ice cream in America occurs in 1700, but the dessert was not made here in any quantity until much later in the century. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were known to be ice cream fanciers. Jefferson, who had learned how to make French ice cream during a visit to France, was one of the first rulers to serve the confection at a state dinner. Jefferson once served a dessert of crisp, hot pastry with ice cream in the middle, perhaps the first ice cream sandwich in America.

Ice cream remained an expensive dish until the early nineteenth century, which saw the invention of the insulated icehouse and the hand-crank ice cream freezer. By the 1820’s, the dessert was being sold by street vendors in New York City, who beckoned passersby with shouts of “I scream ice cream.”

Many vendors peddled a concoction they called hokey pokey,made from milk and eggs boiled to form a custard, then frozen in pewter vessels surrounded by salt and ice. Hokey pokey could thus be considered the ancestor of today’s frozen custard. The term, by the way, is thought to be related to “hocus pocus,” since one could never be quite sure what went into cheap ice cream. By the middle of the century, ice cream was so popular that a magazine editor was moved to write: “A party without ice cream would be like a breakfast without bread or a dinner without a roast.”

The father of the American ice cream industry was Jacob Fussell. Beginning in 1851 with a small ice cream store in Baltimore, Fussell was soon selling his wares in shops from Boston to Washington, and during the Civil War the ice cream entrepreneur sold huge quantities of ice cream to Union supply officers. By the end of the century, ice cream could be bought almost anywhere in the nation. New inventions such as steam power, mechanical refrigeration, electricity, and the homogenizer made the ice cream plant virtually as modern as it is today.

In the early decades of this century, the popularity of the soda fountain made ice cream an American institution. Temperance preachers urged listeners to give up the grape in favor of the cool confection. Baseball star Walter Johnson, no relation to Howard, boasted that all he ever ate on the day he was to pitch was a quart of ice cream.

Beginning in 1921, officials at the Ellis Island immigration station in New York, intent on serving the newcomers a “truly American dish,” included ice cream in all meals served at the station.

By that time, the three mainstays of the ice cream parlor, the soda, the sundae, and the cone, were already popular from coast to coast. The first to appear was the ice cream soda. In 1874, a soda-fountain manufacturer by the name of Robert M. Green was busily vending a cool drink made of sweet cream, syrup, and carbonated water (now known as the egg cream) at the semi-centennial celebration of Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. One day, Green ran out of cream and substituted vanilla ice cream, and the new treat quickly became a sensation. Green went on to make a fortune selling ice cream sodas. His will dictated that “Originator of the Ice Cream Soda” be engraved on his tombstone.

There are many claims for the invention of the ice cream sundae, which emerged during the 1890’s. But then contemporary laws that forbade the sale of soda on Sunday undoubtedly had a hand in popularizing the dessert. The first sundaes were sold in ice cream parlors only on Sunday, and thus were called “Sundays” or “soda-less sodas.” The spelling change to “sundae” was made later by ice cream parlor proprietors eager to see the dish shed its Sunday-only connotation.

The best-known explanation for the invention of the ice cream cone traces its origin to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. According to the tale, an ice cream salesman by the name of Charles E. Menches gave an ice cream sandwich and a bouquet of flowers to the young lady he was escorting. She rolled one of the sandwich wafers into a cone to hold the flowers, then rolled the other wafer into a cone for the ice cream. But some researchers claim that nineteenth-century Frenchmen occasionally ate ice cream from paper or metal cones.

Ice cream parlors were an integral part of American life early in this century, in many ways the social forums of their time. In these emporia, busy soda jerks developed a lingo all their own. Adam’s ale, for instance, was water, while bekh water meant seltzer. A pair of drawers could mean only one thing: two cups of coffee. The expression fix the pumps was used to call attention to a female customer with large breasts.

Fortunes were made in the ice cream trade during the heyday of the soda fountain. Louis Sherry, a Frenchman from Vermont, began his career as a famed restauranteur when he was granted the ice cream concession at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. In 1925, Howard Johnson, the father of American franchisers, opened his first ice cream store in Wollaston, Massachusetts. Johnson, incidentally, once sold 14,000 ice cream cones in a single day at his Wollaston Beach stand.

And while we’re looking at ice cream statistics: During the 1930’s one soda fountain chain reported that each of its fountains, on the average, sold 3,145 gallons of ice cream, 455 gallons of chocolate syrup, 45 gallons of vanilla syrup, 300 pounds of malt powder, and 26 quarts of cherries each year.

In 1921, the Eskimo pie was introduced in Des Moines, Iowa by the same Russell Stover who was to go on to fame and fortune in the candy trade. The Good Humor, meanwhile, was the handiwork of one Harry Burt, an ice cream parlor owner from Youngstown, Ohio. Before starting out in the ice cream business, Burt had sold a lollypop he called the Good Humor Sucker. The bright idea to mount a chocolate-covered Eskimo pie on a lollypop stick led to ice-cream-on-a stick, and the familiar white wagons that still ply our streets with their tinkling bells. Good Humor bars are now sold in most supermarkets as well.

Today, the manufacture of ice cream is, of course, mechanized. Factories first produce a liquid product made of 80 percent cream or butterfat, milk, and nonfat milk solids, and about 15 percent sweeteners. Next they pasteurize, homogenize, whip, and partially freeze the mixture, then add flavoring, package, and fully freeze the product in its containers at temperatures of about 240 degrees below zero. The finished product is frequently as rich in vitamins as an equivalent amount of milk.

Frozen mousse is a cold dessert made from sweetened whipped cream, flavoring, and gelatin. Sherbet consists of milk, sweeteners, and fruit flavoring, while Italian Ices is made from fruit juices, water, and sweeteners. French ice cream is definitely different from other varieties: in this country, only ice cream made with eggs can legally be sold as “French.”

The quality of ice cream products differs greatly from brand to brand, due to such factors as the amount of fresh milk, cream, or eggs used, the naturalness of the flavoring ingredients, and the presence of preservatives and synthetic flavor and texture enhancers. If the ice cream you’ve been enjoying recently leaves something to be desired in the taste bud department, consider yourself lucky. A U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist has suggested that ice cream may someday be made from powdered soybean milk!

Americans presently consume over a billion gallons of ice cream, ices, and sherbet each year-enough to completely fill the Grand Canyon. Americans are by far the world’s largest consumers of ice cream. The average person in the United States puts away about twenty-three quarts each year, that’s roughly equivalent to a cone per person every other day. Only Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders eat even half that much. Compare that figure with the average yearly consumption of 100 years ago, about one teaspoon per person!

Only in America, then, could you expect to find the largest ice cream sundae of all time. The 3,956-pound monster, concocted in McLean, Virginia in 1975, contained 777 gallons of ice cream, six gallons of chocolate syrup, over a gallon of whipped cream, and a case of chocolate sprinkles.

The world’s largest popsicle, meanwhile, was a paltry 2,800 pounds. The largest banana split ever thrown together, measured one mile in length and contained 33,000 scoops of ice cream and over 10,000 bananas! This whopper was the pride and joy of a St. Paul, Minnesota ice cream parlor.

Most ice cream stores today point with pride, not to the size of their wares, but to the sheer length of their flavor list. The Baskin Robbins company lists over 300 flavors in its repertoire, and the number is still climbing, though you’ll have a tough time finding half that many in any one store. The winner of the Baskin Robbins America’s Favorite Flavor Contest, by the way, was Chocolate Mint ice cream. The modern ice cream maker will go to any length to outdo the competition with bizarre new taste treats, and novelty flavors such as iced tea, bubblegum, root beer, and mango ice cream, the newcomers occasionally outsell the old standbys vanilla and chocolate.

But don’t think that exotic flavors belong solely to the modern ice cream maker. A recipe book dating from 1700 shows that even at that date, French confectioners were turning out such tempting ice cream flavors as apricot, violet, and rose!

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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