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A Cool History of Ice Cream

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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
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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.

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Chefs Launch World's Highest Pop-Up Restaurant at Mt. Everest Base Camp
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A touch of altitude sickness shouldn't stand in the way of a good meal. At least that seems to be the idea behind a plan to serve a seven-course dinner to trekkers at Everest Base Camp, the gateway for those planning to climb Mt. Everest in Nepal.

The four chefs leading this trip hope it will land them a new Guinness World Record for the highest pop-up restaurant on the planet, according to Architectural Digest. At the end of May, the chefs will take 10 people on an eight-day trek from the town of Lukla (at an altitude of about 10,000 feet) to Everest Base Camp (at 11,600 feet), all while foraging along the way for ingredients that can be incorporated into the meal. (For a true luxury experience, guests also have the option of traveling by helicopter.) The full package of flights, accommodations, and meals costs about $5600 per person.

After reaching their destination, trekkers will get to sit back and enjoy a feast, which will be served inside a tent to protect diners against the harsh Himalayan winds. Indian chef Sanjay Thakur and others on his team say they want to highlight the importance of sustainability, and the money they raise will be donated to local charities. Thakur said most of the food will be cooked sous vide, which allows vacuum-packed food to be cooked in water over a long period of time.

"The biggest challenge, of course, will be the altitude, which will affect everything," Thakur tells Fine Dining Lovers. "Flavor [perception] will be decreased, so we will be designing a menu of extraordinary dishes accordingly, where spices will have the upper hand."

This isn't the first time an elaborate meal will be served at Everest Base Camp, though. According to Fine Dining Lovers, another chef launched a pop-up at the same spot in 2016, but it presumably wasn't registered with the Guinness Book of World Records. Other extreme restaurants include one carved into a limestone cliff in China, one dangling 16 feet above the ground in a rainforest in Thailand, and one submerged 16 feet below sea level in the Maldives.

[h/t Architectural Digest]

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Do You 'Procrastibake'? You're Not Alone
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The urge to put off tasks until the last minute is often accompanied by a nagging sense of guilt about not being productive. A new trend tackles both problems at once. It's called procrastibaking.

As The New York Times reports, procrastibaking, or throwing yourself into a baking project to distract yourself from an impending work deadline, is popular among students, telecommuters, and anyone else with access to an oven and who needs a creative outlet divorced from their actual work. Preparing a difficult recipe with many steps may feel like a chore when you're making it for someone else, but when you're baking for baking's sake, the process becomes meditative. Procrastibakers often choose the most complicated recipes they can find: More time in the kitchen means less time spent thinking about their term paper (or bar exam, freelance gig, tax filing, etc.).

According to Google Trends, interest in the term procrastibaking first spiked in April 2010. The word gained momentum on university campuses. A writer named Gabrielle reports in a 2012 blog post for the online law student community Survive Law that procrastibaking and legal education go hand in hand, "because if you’re going to spend time away from the books, you may as well have something cool (and edible) to show for it." In 2014, the linguistics department at Monash University posted a blog detailing the connections between the word and the student tradition of bringing baked goods to meetings.

Today procrastibaking appeals to expert time-wasters of all ages and occupations. There are currently 26,585 posts with the hashtag #procrastibaking on Instagram—check them out if you need some inspiration for ways to push off your next project.

[h/t The New York Times]

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