A Cool History of Ice Cream

Cleland Rimmer/Getty Images
Cleland Rimmer/Getty Images

It’s been said that Dolley Madison, wife of president James Madison, helped bolster support for her antisocial husband in Washington by being a gregarious and charming hostess. Her celebrated parties often included music, elaborate dinners, and plenty of drinks.

For dessert, there was oyster ice cream.

In the early 1800s, there were no accepted rules about how to flavor, prepare, or even serve ice cream, other than the fact it had to be done rather quickly. An absence of mechanical refrigeration meant that chefs relied on ice houses—where large chunks of ice were stored—and elaborate, hand-cranked machines in order to dish out the good stuff. Enjoying ice cream was an event normally only enjoyed by society’s elite. How did we get from there to producing 1.54 billion gallons of it annually? To answer that, we’ll need to delve into the history of ice cream.

Siblings share an ice cream
Fox Photos/Getty Images

No one is entirely sure who first had the notion to prepare a sub-zero dessert treat. Stories abound about Alexander the Great snacking on snow flavored with honey and nectar and of Roman emperors sending lackeys out to fetch snow from the mountains for a primitive sno-cone.

“Whether it started in China or Italy, no one was really keeping record,” Amy Ettinger, author of the just-released Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America, tells Mental Floss.

It’s likely that credit for mixing dairy products into a frozen confection should belong to the Tang Dynasty of the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries. Using milk from cows, goats, or buffalo, lowered into ice pools in metal tubes, this embryonic version of ice cream was a treat for emperors. A thousand years later, Italy and France began toying with their own versions of the dessert. A milk-based sorbet recipe originated in Naples; the French used cream, sugar, and orange-flavored water to make “fromage,” though it contained no cheese.

Ice cream’s delicious pilgrimage from Europe to America is a little easier to track. According to Ettinger, it was George Washington who helped popularize the treat among high society beginning in the 1770s. Washington learned of ice cream through Norborne Berkeley, the royal governor of the colony of Virginia, who served it at a dinner Washington attended. “Washington loved it and started serving it at state functions,” she says.

At Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon, a 300-piece set for making and serving ice cream took up permanent residence in the kitchen. Because it was such a labor-intensive ordeal, serving ice cream became a status symbol. “There were bragging rights to it,” Ettinger says. “It became very popular in Washington at very elite functions.”

Ice cream continued to be a rare treat, with political figures like Thomas Jefferson and the Madisons reserving it for special occasions. Returning from France, Jefferson even jotted down a recipe for it that called for two bottles of “good cream,” six eggs, and a half-pound of sugar flavored with vanilla and then frozen. As the use of insulated ice houses grew, so did ice cream's popularity: Some July 4 parties in Washington held sightings of the delicacy that surprised people for being frozen in the heat of summer.

Throughout the 1800s, a series of technological innovations helped usher ice cream from exclusive events to mainstream availability. Refrigeration, homogenization, and delivery methods made the manufacture and distribution of the frozen treat possible. Ice cream was no longer part of class distinction.

British soldiers are served ice cream during World War II
Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images

According to Ettinger, 1904 was a big year. That was when the ice cream cone was popularized at the St. Louis World’s Fair, putting an end to the labor-intensive process of washing ice cream dishes at soda fountains. Suddenly, ice cream could be taken on the go, and ice cream parlors didn’t need to invest in dishwashers.

The next big shot in the arm was Prohibition. When the 18th Amendment was enacted in 1920, a number of bars and saloons converted to soda fountains, exchanging one indulgence (alcohol) for another (sugar). Even beer makers like Yuengling and Anheuser-Busch started making the sweet stuff. “That first year of Prohibition, a tremendous amount of ice cream was consumed,” Ettinger says. “Soda fountains became a social hub.” Between 1916 and 1925, American ice cream consumption went up by a staggering 55 percent.

The deluge of ice cream was accompanied by the introduction of novelties: the unfortunately-named Eskimo Pie (ice cream wrapped in a hard chocolate shell), the Drumstick (ice cream wrapped in peanuts), and Good Humor bars that came on a stick for getting plump while on the go. Even with the end of Prohibition in 1933, it would take the Great Depression and a world war to get Americans to stop eating so much ice cream.

“With the lack of sugar, production of ice cream fell off,” Ettinger says. But troops were spared any cravings. “Ice cream was served to troops for combat fatigue. It was prescribed by military doctors.” The Navy even had an ice cream barge that could produce 10 gallons every seven minutes.

Since the end of the war, virtually nothing has stopped ice cream’s dominance as the preferred way to combat a hot summer’s day. Häagen-Dazs broke the mold of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry with a wider variety of flavors, while mix-ins like Dairy Queen’s Blizzard kept shifting the goal posts for premium treats. Ice cream had become so closely identified with America that it was often the first thing sampled by people arriving on Ellis Island.

According to Ettinger—who began her research in San Francisco with the artisanal shops there and went on ride-alongs on ice cream trucks—ice cream's appeal is simple. “It’s the quintessential American dessert,” she says.

Despite the variety of flavors, no one seems as keen on oyster ice cream as Dolley Madison. Perhaps that’s because it was likely little more than frozen oyster chowder with the oysters drained out. Gross? Maybe. But no history of ice cream would be complete without it.

Which Kind of Oatmeal is Best for Your Health?

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iStock

Like a lot of nutritionally robust foods, oatmeal sometimes gets a bad rap for being boring. Even the sight of plain, cooked oats—often resembling a mushy kind of paste—can have people passing it up in favor of a sugary cereal or pancake stack. But oatmeal can wind up being one of the better breakfast choices, not only in taste, but also in its health benefits, Time reports. It all comes down to what type of oatmeal you buy and how you prepare it.

To determine your best oat option, it helps to understand that oatmeal isn’t really oatmeal. When oats are harvested, they’re wrapped in a hard husk that manufacturers remove to facilitate cooking. Inside is the groat, a complete grain full of fiber. When you buy oatmeal that’s labeled “instant,” "quick-cooking," "rolled," or "old-fashioned," the groat has been steamed and rolled flat to make it easier to cook. The mostly unadulterated oatmeal labeled “steel-cut” or “Irish” is actually made up of groats that have been chopped up but are otherwise whole.

Typically, the faster you can cook the oatmeal, the more it’s been processed and the less it resembles the groat from the field. Because they resemble kernels and remain thick, steel-cut oatmeal requires the longest preparation, simmering on a stovetop for 30 minutes or so. Processed oats are flaky and can easily be heated.

Nutritionally, both rolled and steel-cut oats have the same profile. Both are fibrous and high in vitamins E, B1, and B12. Steel-cut oats have a heartier texture, while instant tends to take on a loose, light consistency. But because steel-cut oatmeal keeps more of the whole grain intact, it tends to be higher in fiber and lower on the glycemic index and provides more of a slow-burn energy as opposed to the quick burst of the sugar found in flavored instant oatmeal packets.

If you want to opt for steel-cut oats but are short on time, there are solutions. You can soak oats overnight to reduce cooking time down to 10 minutes or so on the stove, or prepare a week’s worth so you can quickly re-heat portions. Topped with yogurt, peanut butter, or fruit, it’s one of the best breakfast choices you can make. And with a little foresight, you won’t have to sacrifice your busy morning to enjoy it.

[h/t Time]

An Avocado Shortage Has Triggered a Fruit Crime Wave in New Zealand

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iStock

In New Zealand, getting started as an avocado grower is no easy task right now. That’s because, according to Stuff.co.nz and The Takeout, the country’s nurseries are currently experiencing a shortage of avocado saplings due to high demand.

Avocado prices are especially high in New Zealand, in part because of the country’s strict import rules. New Zealand doesn’t import avocados, and homegrown harvests have produced low yields in the past two years. Prices for the fruit have spiked, and the average avocado goes for about $3.30 according to The New York Times.

Some New Zealanders have responded to the shortage by trying to get into the avocado cultivation game themselves, but the rush to buy avocado saplings has led to a shortage for wholesalers and nurseries. Several nursery owners Stuff.co.nz spoke to currently have a large backlog of orders they haven’t yet filled. If you want a sapling this year, you’d better get in line. Some nurseries ran out as early as April, and more saplings might not come into stock until late September.

Some opportunistic New Zealanders have taken a different tack to get their avocado fix. There has been a rash of fruit theft from avocado orchards, and thieves are taking more than just one or two avocados. One grower reported losing 70 percent of his harvest to theft in July, costing him an estimated $100,000.

People looking to plant avocado trees shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to get their hands on saplings, though. Winter in New Zealand isn’t yet over, and if you’re going to plant a new tree, you should probably wait until spring, anyway. And growing avocados isn’t an instant gratification hobby. Newly planted avocado trees don’t bear fruit for their first few years. That baby tree might take as long as four years to start producing guacamole ingredients.

[h/t The Takeout]

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