Ice Cream Origins
Ice cream is one of the most popular treats on the planet and has a history of being beloved many many peoples around world. In the US alone, 1.6 billion gallons are produced annually. Though developed long before North America was colonized by Europe, ice cream has become a fixture in American culture: Ice cream parlors, ice cream socials, sundaes, cones, etc. Today we have varieties of ice cream ranging from the traditional vanilla and chocolate to things as adventurous as dandelion and gorgonzola flavors. The genesis of what we know as ice cream is, like most things in history, hard to pin down exactly and is the subject of much debate among food historians.
The first step in trying to find the creation story of ice cream is to define what we mean by “ice cream.” Taking the name literally, we would have to say that for a dessert to be called ice cream it must a) be cold, and probably frozen, and b) must contain dairy, probably cream. However, the term ice cream today calls to mind other frozen treats like sorbet, sherbert, and frozen yogurt which don't necessarily have these two requirements. Inclusion of dairy especially changes the dates of the origins of ice cream significantly.
The practice of having iced treats goes back millennia, King Solomon is said to have enjoyed iced drinks during harvest time, and Alexander the great partook of snow flavored with honey or nectar. Nearly all examples of possible ice cream precursors before the medieval period were enjoyed by powerful people, such as Roman emperor Nero who would eat fruit mixed with snow brought from the mountains by slaves. This makes sense, since before refrigeration, one would have to have considerable resources to get an ice cold treat during a time of year when it was hot enough to enjoy one.
The earliest example of a frozen delicacy resembling ice cream that actually had dairy in it is found in the Tang period in China. This is ironic, because according to traditional Chinese medicine, the sugar, dairy, and coldness of ice cream are a combination that is terrible for your health. As early as 200 BCE, there are references to a Chinese rice-milk mixture that was preserved in snow. A dairy version of this concoction became popular among the the rulers of the Tang period from 618 to 907 CE. The recipe consisted of fermented milk(kumis) from a cow, goat, or buffalo, flour, and camphor. The mixture was stored in metal tubes and kept in ice pools freezing.
The First Recipes
During the middle ages, a sweet, iced fruit drink of Turkish origin was brought to Europe by Mediterranean travelers who obtained it from Arab merchants. In Italy at this time, there was a well known technique for cooling wine using saltpeter and snow. The first sorbets probably came from using this flash-freezing technique on these Turkish drinks to make new, icy delicacy.
The origin story of “true ice cream” is a contest between Italy and France. Some say that recipes of frozen desserts brought from Asia to Italy by Marco Polo were the first seeds of modern ice cream. Others say that Katherine de Medicci introduced proto-ice cream desserts to France when she married Henry II in 1500, and that the development of what we now know as ice cream should be more credited to France. Based on my research, I would say that people from both countries were vital to the creation of true ice cream, and that ice cream is just as delicious without being assigned a nationality.
One ice cream innovator that should be mentioned by name is the Italian Antonio Latini, a steward in the office of the Spanish viceroy in Napoli. Latini experimented with recipes for the “Turkish sorbets” mentioned before, including the addition of dairy. His cookbook "Lo Scalco alla Moderna" (The Modern Steward) includes some of the earliest recorded recipes for Italian classics like tomato sauce, many sorbet recipes, and what is considered by many to be the first ice cream recipe.
Latini's contemporaries in France were also making progress toward real ice cream. In 1686, a Sicilian chef Francesco Procopia dei Cotelli, opened Cafe Procope in Paris. This cafe was possibly the first establishment to bring Italian gelato to France, though some say the cafe served only sweet, chilled drinks. Cafe Procope is still in business and it is the oldest functioning cafe in all of France. Possible French precursors to ice cream included a dessert called fromage. The name means “cheese”, possibly because it was chilled in cheese molds.
1692 saw the release of Latini's book, as well its French contemporary "La Maison Reglee"(The Well-orderd Home) by Nicolas Audiger. This volume contained clear recipes for making ices in the Italian style, and “creme glasee,” iced cream. Audiger's formula is almost identical to modern ice cream: Take two buckets, one inside the other, with the space between them filled with ice and salt. Stir the sweet cream mixture as it freezes until it is like snow.
Ice Cream in America
There is an American myth that ice cream was invented by Martha Washington, wife of President George Washington. The story goes that Martha left a bowl of sweet cream out all night on the porch, the mixture froze in the winter air, and in the morning, the Washingtons awoke to a delectable treat. This is certainly a myth because there are accounts of ice cream in the American colonies before the Washingtons married. The earliest is a1744 letter written by guest of William Bladen, governor of Maryland. The letter relates that governor served ice cream to his guests for dessert.
It isn't surprising that George Washington has his own ice cream origin story connected to him. The first American President had a well documented love for the frozen dessert. A 1784 ledger from Mt. Vernon, notes the acquisition of an ice cream machine for the Washington estate. Despite this fact, it is said that in 1790 Washington spent 200 dollars in one summer at a local ice cream shop, the equivalent of almost $100,000 in today's money. This could have had something to do with Washington's famous wooden teeth.
Other presidents in our history also had a taste for ice cream. Thomas Jefferson had his own stockpile of ice cream making pots as well as plenty of cream and Ice. Jefferson even wrote his own recipe for vanilla ice cream, to be served with savoy cookies. Ice cream was also popular in the Lincoln household. Mary Lincoln was known for her strawberry and ice cream parties.
Until the early 1800s, Ice cream was generally a wealthy folks' dessert in America, just as it had been for most of history. It wasn't until the invention of modern refrigeration technologies,
starting with insulated ice-houses, that ice cream became more available to common people. In fact, the invention of the hand cranked ice cream churn is credited to Nancy Johnson, an average 1840s New Jersey housewife. Johnson's design is still used in manual and motorized ice cream churns available for home use today.
The first commercial ice cream factory was created in 1850 by Jacob Fussel. Fussel was a successful dairyman from Baltimore that had the idea of using excess milk from his cow operations to make ice cream for extra revenue. In 1874, the first ice cream soda shop opened in the US, and ice cream was on its way to becoming and American classic. By the 19-teens, there were ice cream shops and soda fountains all across America serving not just ice cream but also milkshakes, sundaes, and malteds.
Ice cream became such a fixture in the American diet and culture that part of the military morale budget was spent on ice cream for troops in WWII. There was even a floating ice cream parlor in Western Pacific serving the navy. The rise of industrial food from post-war until the 1970s included cheap, prepackaged ice cream snacks that supplanted much of the home made varieties. This led to the closing of hundreds of small ice cream shops, and a propitious drop in the quality of American ice cream. Thankfully, with with the recent explosion of the boutique food movement, quality ice cream made with simple ingredients is making a come back.