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.

9 Vintage Thanksgiving Side Dishes We Shouldn’t Bring Back

We all have that aunt—the one who’s been bringing her Miracle-Whip-bound pimiento-pea salad to Thanksgiving dinner since time immemorial. Although you may swear she got her recipe straight from the devil, it turns out that cheese-and-lime-Jell-O salads and their ilk were all the rage in her day. So it’s not (totally) her fault! To cut her a little slack, here are some examples of vintage Thanksgiving-themed recipes that will make her salad look like a perfectly golden-brown turkey.

1. CRANBERRY CANDLE SALAD

Best Foods Mayonnaise Ad 1960s with Jello Molds

Nothing complements the tart, refreshing flavor of cranberry sauce like some gelatin and salty, eggy mayonnaise. If that weren’t weird enough, this recipe also tells you to shove a real candle in there and then light it. Ostensibly, you’re supposed to eat around the melted wax, but we can’t be sure—maybe it’s considered a condiment.

2. CANDIED SWEET POTATOES WITH ANGOSTURA BITTERS

This recipe for candied sweet potatoes, which involves baking them in a mixture of butter, sugar, and angostura bitters, is probably either really good or really bad. It sort of makes sense, adding bitters to cut down on the sugar factor. Alternatively, you could just not make a candied version of something that already has the word sweet in its name.

3. CREAMED ONIONS

This once-popular Thanksgiving mainstay has been neglected over the last century, for perhaps obvious reasons. In some households, the idea was to pour creamed onions over the turkey, like gravy, to add a little moisture. Or possibly because eating a chunky mouthful of pearl onions and cream sauce by itself is gross.

4. TURKEY AND STUFFING ON JELL-O

Thanksgiving Jello Ad

There’s not much to this one, is there? It’s a pile of turkey and stuffing dumped on top of a cranberry orange Jell-O ring—sounds delicious!

5. WINTER CORN

This mixture of corn, sour cream, and bacon is sometimes found on Midwestern Thanksgiving tables. It’s mostly off-putting because its main ingredient is creamed corn. That said, creamed corn really needs all the help it can get, so adding bacon can only improve it.

6. SWEET AND SOUR TANG POPCORN (A.K.A. ASTRONAUT POPCORN)

Reportedly, this was a popular Thanksgiving dessert in the ’70s. The idea seems to be an offshoot of caramel corn, but … with Tang powder.

7. HOT DR. PEPPER

You gotta give the good folks at Dr. Pepper a few points for at least trying here. They noticed that soda was not often considered a cozy, comforting holiday drink, and they stepped up to the bat undaunted. Bold move.

8. FROZEN JELLIED TURKEY-VEGETABLE SALAD

There’s only one way to improve a dish as alluring as Jellied Turkey-Vegetable Salad, and that’s to stick it in the freezer. From the sound of the recipe—which combines cream of celery soup, salad dressing, diced turkey, vegetables, and gelatin—this is basically the inside of a turkey pot pie if it was served frozen. And also if it was square.

9. JELL-O FRUIT CORNUCOPIA

Sure, cornucopias were for holding food in olden times, but don’t you wish you could eat one? Well, guess what—your years of longing are finally over, because someone has made a Jell-O version of one with fruit trapped in it. You don’t even have to take the fruit out of the cornucopia this time—you can just pop the whole thing in your mouth. Dreams do come true.

Up Your Turkey Game With This Simple Buttermilk Brine

iStock.com/4kodiak
iStock.com/4kodiak

Whoever chose turkey to be the starring dish of Thanksgiving dinner has a sick sense of humor. Not only does the bird take hours to thaw and cook before it's safe to eat, but its size makes it very difficult to cook evenly—meaning there are many opportunities for the millions of amateur cooks who prepare it each year to screw it up. But there's no reason to settle for dry, flavorless turkey this Thanksgiving. With this buttermilk brine recipe from Skillet, the breast will come out just as juicy as the thighs with little effort on your part.

A brine is a salty solution you soak your uncooked meat in to help it retain its moisture and flavor when it goes into the oven. A brine can be as simple as salt and water, but in this recipe, the turkey marinates in a mixture of buttermilk, water, sugar, salt, garlic, citrus, bay leaf, and peppercorns for 24 hours before it's ready to roast.

Rather than a whole bird, this recipe calls for a bone-in turkey breast. White meat contains less fat than dark meat, which is why turkey breast often turns out dryer and less flavorful than legs and thighs when all the parts are left to cook for the same amount of time. The buttermilk brine imparts a tangy creaminess to the turkey breast that it otherwise lacks, and by cooking the breast separately, you can pull it out of the oven at peak juiciness rather than waiting for the meatier parts to cook through fully.

After the turkey breast has had sufficient time to soak, remove it from the refrigerator and drain it on paper towels. Blot any excess buttermilk and pop the meat into a roasting pan and into a 375°F oven. In addition to lending flavor, buttermilk promotes browning, which is essential to a tasty Thanksgiving turkey.

When the internal temperature reads 150°F (which should take 90 minutes to 2 hours), pull out the bird, let it rest for 15 minutes, and commence carving the most succulent turkey breast ever to hit your Thanksgiving table.

[h/t Skillet]

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