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.

11 Unusual Cutting and Cheese Boards

Fred & Friends, Amazon
Fred & Friends, Amazon

Planning a wine and cheese party? Make sure what you're using to serve snacks is just as cute as your food is delicious.

1. Mouse Trap; $21

A cheese board shaped like a mouse trap

Fred & Friends, Amazon

At first glance, this item just looks like an oversized mouse trap. Ingeniously, the snapping part of the trap can be removed to reveal it's actually a cheese slicer. A chunk of cheese can be displayed and sliced on the 9-inch-long board—just don't invite any mice to the party.

Find it: Amazon

2. MOUSE BOARD; $30

A board shaped like a mouse hole with a mouse-shaped cheese cutter on top

Fred & Friends, Amazon

If a mouse trap is a little too macabre for your shindig, consider this adorable alternative. Assemble your cheeses on the 8-inch-long board and slice them up with a mouse-shaped knife that can be stored in the Tom and Jerry-esque mouse hole at the bottom.

Find it: Amazon

3. STATE SLATE; $20

Cheese and crackers arrayed on a slate cheese board

Bison Hill Stonecrafts, Amazon

Celebrate cheese from all over the United States with this patriotic slate. You can even grab a piece of chalk and write down the names of all the cheeses for hungry guests. Creator Bison Hill Stonecrafts will even personalize your board with a laser engraving, if you'd like.

Find it: Amazon

4. Log and Axe; $25

A cheese board shaped like a cut tree trunk

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Give your cheese a rustic presentation with this log and axe set-up. The solid beech cutting board is shaped like a log and comes with an axe-shaped knife to help you bring out your inner lumberjack.

Find it: Amazon

5. Mariner Wheel; $35

Invite all your sailor friends over for snacks with this nautical cheese board. When each of the four differently-shaped knives are placed into their respective holes in the board, the board looks like a ship's wheel.

Find it: UncommonGoods

6. Cheese Degrees; $20

A cutting board with a protractor design

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Make sure everyone gets an even amount of cheese with this obsessively precise cutting board. Whether you want perfect cubes or exactly portioned triangles, this cheese board can help ensure that everything is perfectly sliced.

Find it: Amazon

7. The States; $28

A cheese board in the shape of New York state

Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat, UncommonGoods

Celebrate your home state with a bamboo cutting board created by New York-based woodworkers Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat. You can see all the available state shapes in this PDF.

Find it: UncommonGoods

8. Voodoo Doll; $20

Pull out this voodoo doll-shaped board when you're feeling a little vindictive. You can hack away at meats and cheese and then store the knife appropriately in the wooden doll's back.

Find it: Overstock.com

9. Ampersand; $48

Delight your guests with some knowledge about where the ampersand comes from while using this board, which lets you fill a twisting line of crackers around three different cheeses.

Find it: UncommonGoods

10. Say Cheese; $19

A cheese board shaped like a smiling mouth

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Smile! It's cheese time. This mouth-shaped cheese board looks just as happy about the selection as you do. Underneath all the food, the board says "say cheese" in the center.

Find it: Amazon

11. The Obsessive Chef; $27

A cutting board with measurements on it

Fred & Friends, Amazon

This product comes with a series of lines to guide the cutter, including how to medium dice, small dice, brunoise, fine brunoise, batonnet, allumette, julienne, and fine julienne. The lines are burnished instead of printed, so they'll never get worn away.

Find it: Amazon or at one of the retailers below:

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

A Massive Beef Recall Due to E. Coli Might Affect Your Memorial Day Meal Plans

iStock/Kameleon007
iStock/Kameleon007

If your Memorial Day weekend plans involve grilling meat, you're going to want to take some extra precautions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that 62,112 pounds of raw beef are being recalled due to possible contamination with E. coli bacteria, which causes food poisoning.

The meat originated with the Aurora Packing Company of North Aurora, Illinois on April 19. Aurora Packing is recalling the products, which have an EST. 788 number on the USDA mark of inspection found on packaging and were shipped to stores around the country. The meat was packaged in multiple cuts, including ribeye and briskets.

Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli, is bacteria that affects the gastrointestinal system, causing cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and other serious symptoms that can derail one's celebratory mood. If you think you've purchased any of the contaminated meat, it's recommended that you immediately discard it.

[h/t USA Today]

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