Ice Cream: A Brief History

Authors of historical fiction do a great deal of research and we sometimes find ourselves racing down research rabbit holes. Often, they have little to do with the topic of our original quest, but they can add several hours of entertainment to our day. Such was the case for me recently.

I think we can all agree that ice cream is a universal favorite whether it is on a cone, in a dish, or topping a warm piece of pie. If you are old enough, you can probably remember homemade ice cream made in a hand cranked churn. Rock salt, lots of ice, a good churn, your recipe of choice, about 30-60 minutes of intensive arm exercise, and voila – a luscious homemade treat!

I have read many accounts of ice cream being served in Colonial America. Novels, contemporaneous diaries, historical tomes, even cookbooks all describe the likes of Martha Washington serving the frozen concoction to White House dinner guests, but I had no idea just how ancient the sweet delight was until I started down that research rabbit hole.

Icy sweets have been enjoyed since BCE days. King Solomon used snow preserved in high mountain crevices to cool his beverages at harvest time. Alexander the Great flavored ice and snow with honey and nectar. Nero sent a stream of runners to the mountains to keep him supplied with snow which he mixed with juices and fruits. Upon his return from China in 1254, Marco Polo presented his fellow Italians with a recipe that resembles present day sherbet. There is evidence that Italy also gained knowledge of and techniques for producing iced concoctions from their Arab neighbors across the Mediterranean. It is believed that Ice cream in the form we would recognize using ice and salt for the freezing process and basic ingredients evolved in Europe sometime in the mid-16th century.

Being difficult and expensive to produce, ice cream was first enjoyed by, you guessed it, royalty. In France, it has been said that Catherine de Medici introduced it after her marriage to Henry II and “cream ice”, as it was known, was a regular feature on Charles I of England’s table. When sugar was added to frozen drinks in the 17th century, what we know as sorbet was created. An Italian, Antonio Latini is created with being the first to write down the recipe for sorbet and for creating a milk based sorbet believed by food historians to be the first real ice cream. It was not until around 1660 that common folk were able to enjoy a dish.

Paris’s first cafe, Il Procope, served a frozen dessert blended of milk, cream, butter, and eggs to famous customers Ben Franklin, Victor Hugo, and Napoleon. It’s Italian founder, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, is considered the father of gelato.

It is uncertain exactly when ice cream arrived in America, but the first record of its being served is a letter written in 1744 by a guest of Maryland Governor William Bladen. For a time, ice cream was the dessert of choice of presidents. George Washington spent $200 on it with a New York City merchant in the summer of 1790. Thomas Jefferson had a favorite recipe for vanilla ice cream and Dolly Madison served a magnificent strawberry creation in 1813 at her husband’s second inauguration banquet. It remained the exclusive domain of the rich and famous throughout the early part of the 19th century until commercially produced ice creams were first sold in 1851 by Baltimore milk dealer Jacob Fussell.

Like so many things, ice cream production benefited from the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution. By the 1870’s, American soda fountain shops manned by “soda jerks” were selling ice cream sodas at their counters. An interesting aside is the story of how the ice cream sundae came about. The mid-to-late 19th century saw an resurgence of religious fervor bringing with it criticism of anything seen as be sinful, especially if the sin occurred on a Sunday. Ice cream sodas were deemed to be too sinfully rich to be sold on Sundays and so the soda was eliminated, new ingredients were added, and the ice cream sundae was born.

Today, the total frozen dairy annual production in the United States is more than 6.4 billion pounds. We do love our ice cream!

My favorite is plain old chocolate or pralines and cream. What’s yours?

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