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Ice Cream and Ices

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America
Jeri Quinzio

Ice Cream and Ices 

For years Americans ate more ice cream than people in any other country. Today, however, with consumption at nineteen quarts per person, per year, America is in second place. New Zealand's twenty-three quarts a person puts it in first place. Still, in America, ice cream, like apple pie, is not just a dessert; it is a national symbol. Although Americans cannot claim to have invented ice cream, they can take credit for democratizing it.

Ice cream's origins go back to the sixteenth century, when Italian scientists discovered they could intensify the natural coldness of ice by mixing it with salt. Inspired by these scientists, confectioners experimented with freezing drinks and cream desserts and created the first ices and ice creams. Freezing was fraught with difficulty in an era that lacked refrigeration. The earliest printed recipes listed quantities of snow or ice and salt among the ingredients, and they included more detail about freezing than they did about creating the ice or ice cream mixture. In fact, some recipes called for the cook to use an existing drink or cream recipe, and then follow freezing instructions. After making the drink or cream mixture, the cooks poured it into a covered pot called a sorbetière. Next they mixed ice or snow with the correct proportion of salt in a large pail. They put the covered sorbetière into the ice-and-salt–filled pail and banked the ice up around it to begin the freezing process. Cooks soon learned that to make smooth ice cream, they had to stir the mixture frequently while it was freezing. So from time to time they took the sorbetière out of the pail, opened it, and stirred the mixture thoroughly. Then they put the cover back on and put it back in the pail. They had to turn or shake the closed sorbetière while it was in the ice mixture, and they needed to drain the freezing pot as the ice melted. It was cold, hard, time-consuming work.

Despite all the difficulties, by the eighteenth century confectioners were making ices and ice creams in every conceivable flavor and presenting them in every imaginable shape, with flavors that ranged from orange blossom to artichoke, from apricot to parmesan cheese. They were molded, turned out, and tinted to imitate bunches of asparagus, fuzzy peaches, and delicate roses. Walnut ice cream was served in walnut shells; fruit ices were embellished with fresh leaves and branches. They were royal desserts, enjoyed by royalty.

Ice Cream and Ices

Ice Cream Truck.

Courtesy of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University

America's first families were ice cream fans. George Washington bought “a Cream Machine for Making Ice” in 1784, and Thomas Jefferson's papers include his own handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream. Americans could also buy ice cream from confectioners. An ad in the May 12, 1777, New York Gazette stated that “Philip Lenzi, Confectioner from London” had ice cream available “almost every day.” Most confectioners offered a few standard flavors and made others to order. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the average person could not afford ice cream, whether made at home or bought from a confectioner. Ice was not always affordable or available nor was cream. Sugar was costly. Most important, making ice cream was so labor-intensive that, unless they had servants or slaves, most people could not afford the time.

Ice Cream for All.

Ice cream became more democratic when Nancy Johnson, an American, invented an ice cream freezer suitable for home use in 1846. Johnson's freezer featured a crank and a dasher, or churn, inside the freezing pot, which meant that the ice cream mixture could be stirred without taking the freezing pot out of the pail and opening it. With Johnson's new freezer, home cooks could make ice cream much more easily. At around the same time, the price of sugar went down and ice became more accessible, so ice cream making became more affordable.

The cost of buying ice cream also went down as wholesalers went into the business. In 1851, Jacob Fussell, a Baltimore dairyman, became the first ice cream wholesaler in America. He set up a factory in a small Pennsylvania town, packed the ice cream in ice, and put it on the train to Baltimore. Eventually Fussell opened factories in Baltimore, Washington, Boston, and New York. Others followed his lead, and after the Civil War ended, the ice cream business expanded rapidly. Confectioners found it difficult to compete with wholesalers, who could easily undersell them. The Confectioners’ Journal of 1883 described the wholesalers’ products as “frothy, watery slop and slush and still viler ‘flavorings,’ whose make up is only known to the devil's chemical emissaries.”

From the earliest days, medical opinion was divided over the merits or dangers of eating ice cream. Some physicians thought it was unnatural and dangerous and blamed it for everything from colic

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Ice Cream Paraphernalia.

Courtesy of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University

to paralysis. Others countered that ices cured diseases, especially scurvy, emaciation, and paralysis. In the nineteenth century, writers warned that eating ice cream after meals would reduce the temperature of the stomach and thus stop digestion. People continued to eat ice cream. In fact, it was becoming a mass-market product. In 1859, national production was estimated at 4,000 gallons. Ten years later, it was 24,000 gallons. By the early twenty-first century, despite the fact that it was still mostly a summertime treat, Americans were gobbling up 19.1 quarts of ice cream per capita.

Ice cream was served at home and in restaurants. It teamed up with cake at birthday parties. Specialized ice cream forks, knives, spoons, and dishes all became fashionable. Hostesses served ices as palate cleansers between dinner courses or as accompaniments to the meat or fish course. Cucumber sorbet accompanied boiled cod, gooseberry sorbet went with goose, and ginger ice was served with roast beef. At the other end of the social spectrum, vendors on city streets screamed “ice cream,” and kids came running, pennies clutched in their hands.

Ice Cream Originals.

Drugstore soda fountains made their debut early in the nineteenth century. At first they served carbonated water, which was thought to have health benefits, at a simple counter. Before long, fruit syrups and other flavorings were added to the waters, and the fountains became architectural fantasies made of marble and mirrors. Ice cream sodas were initially made with soda water, flavored syrup, and cream, but no ice cream. In 1874, Robert M. Green of Philadelphia substituted ice cream for the cream and created a true ice cream soda. It became such a success that, in 1893, a magazine called it “our national beverage.”

The invention of the ice cream sundae is the stuff of legend. One version has it that preachers thought it was sinful to sip sodas on Sundays, which led an enterprising soda jerk to invent the sundae. Another says a minister instigated, rather than opposed, the Sunday treat. The sundae was hugely popular, and other ice cream innovations followed.

Eskimo Pies, Popsicles, Creamsicles, Fudgsicles, ice cream sandwiches, and Good Humor bars were among the successful ones. Harry Burt, of Youngstown, Ohio, invented the Good Humor Ice Cream Sucker, the first chocolate-covered ice cream bar on a stick, in 1920. He was also the first to sell ice cream from trucks, which he painted white and decked out with jingling bells.

Perhaps the most popular ice cream innovation was the ice cream cone, which is reputed to have been invented at the 1904 World's Fair in Saint Louis. Supposedly a vendor selling ice cream in small glass dishes could not wash the dishes fast enough to keep up with demand. Ernest Hamwi, a vendor selling wafers, solved the problem. Hamwi rolled his wafers into cone shapes and filled them with ice cream. Before long, everyone at the fair was eating the ice cream cones he claimed to have invented. But there were earlier claimants. In 1902, Antonio Valvona was granted a patent for his “apparatus for baking biscuit-cups for ice cream.” Italo Marchiony, who sold lemon ices from a pushcart in New York, received a patent on a mold that turned out ten cones at a time in 1903.

However, long before, European confectioners rolled wafers into cones and filled them first with flavored whipped creams and then ice creams. But these were ice cream cones on a silver platter, eaten at a table with fork and spoon. America popularized the ice cream cone that is licked outdoors on a summer day.

In 1920, America prohibited alcohol and started an ice cream boom. Consumption went up by more than 100 million gallons when the United States went dry. Soda fountains and ice cream parlors took the place of corner saloons. Anheuser-Busch and other breweries switched from producing beer to making ice cream. “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” was a popular song lyric as well as a kids’ rhyme.

The repeal of Prohibition and the Great Depression of the 1930s caused a downturn in ice cream consumption. Ice cream makers fought back with inexpensive novelties like the Twin-Popsicle and the Side-Walk Sundae. They tried to sell ice cream for breakfast. “Serve it over your cereal in place of cream,” suggested one ad. Celebrities including Babe Ruth and Charlie Chaplin endorsed ice cream, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed he ate ice cream at least once a day.

A New Era for Ice Cream.

By the end of the 1930s, ice cream was back and selling better than ever. New manufacturing and refrigeration methods changed the business. Ice cream was produced in a continuous stream instead of separate batches, making it possible to turn out more of it faster than ever. Grocers began installing refrigerated cabinets that kept ice cream frozen, and householders started replacing their iceboxes with refrigerators complete with tiny freezer compartments. Packaged ice cream would not gain significant market share until after World War II, but the trend had begun.

During the war, the government deemed ice cream a necessity for U.S. fighting forces. It was easy to digest, nutritious, and great for morale. The Navy launched a floating ice cream parlor in the western Pacific, and the Army supplied the troops with enough ingredients to make 80 million gallons a year. In 1943, the U.S. military was the world's largest ice cream manufacturer. Ice cream played a role on the home front, too. Ice cream cup lids featured pictures of planes, tanks, and guns, and kids collected and traded them. Their parents happily paid an extra ten cents for Victory Sundaes because each one came with a war stamp. The stamps were saved and converted to bonds to raise money for the war.

When the war and gas rationing ended, Americans took to the road. They drove to Dairy Queen, Carvel, and Tastee-Freez for the new soft-serve ice creams, and they stopped at Howard Johnson's for ice cream cones. Howard Johnson had opened his first ice cream stand in 1925 with three flavors of old-fashioned, hand-cranked ice cream—vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. By the 1950s, he had four hundred restaurants and twenty-eight flavors. Later, Baskin-Robbins would come up with thirty-one flavors, one for every day of the longest months. Neighborhood ice cream parlors and drugstore soda fountains could not compete with the chains. The ice cream parlor became a museum piece in 1955 when one opened at Disneyland.

In the 1950s, Americans began shopping at supermarkets, buying packaged ice cream and storing it in their new home freezers. Supermarket ice cream was cheap and readily available, but much of it was not very good. Before the war, the butterfat content of ice cream was about 14 percent. Manufacturers lowered it to 10 percent during the war, and most kept it there. They made ice cream with artificial colors and imitation flavors, and they whipped a lot of air into it.

In 1960, the American ice cream maker Reuben Mattus created a high-fat, super-premium ice cream he named Häagen-Dazs for its European sound and gourmet appeal. The ice cream was made without preservatives and without much air. It came in three flavors: vanilla, chocolate, and coffee. Mattus discovered that consumers who were starved for rich, high-quality ice cream were willing to pay more for it. He ushered in the premium ice cream market.

Today, Americans can choose from light, reduced-fat, low-fat, nonfat, regular, premium, and super-premium ice creams as well as sherbets, sorbets, gelati, frozen yogurts, and innumerable novelty frozen desserts. Ice cream eaters no longer worry about health issues like colic and cold stomachs. They are concerned about fat and cholesterol instead. As a result, manufacturers are replacing saturated fats with oat bran and soy flour and fortifying ice cream with fish oils for their healthful omega-3 fatty acids. More appealingly, they have created floral ice creams, including orange blossom, jasmine, and rose. The same flavors eighteenth-century confectioners made for royalty are blossoming again for everyone, thanks to the democratization of ice cream.

[See alsoBirthdays; Dairy Industry; Desserts; Flowers, Edible; Food Trucks; Freezers and Freezing; Häagen-Dazs; Howard Johnson; Ice; Iceboxes; Ice Cream Makers; Ice Cream Molds; Ice Cream Sodas; Jefferson, Thomas; Johnson, Howard; Milk; Milkshakes, Malts, and Floats; Refrigerators; Soda Fountains.]


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                              Jeri Quinzio

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