Some 325 years ago Charles I of England gave a state banquet. Charles, sometimes a vain and pompous man, was proud of his kitchen. At the end of a sumptuous dinner a unique dessert—ice cream—made its appearance on the banquet table. Charles dug into it with obvious relish. Taking their cue from the King, the guests sampled this strange combination of milk and ice. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland looked up from his empty dish and nodded his approval to the Marquis of Montrose, who in turn spoke to the Earl of Argyle about the new dessert. Dukes, ministers and ladies of the court all agreed that the King's dessert was a smashing success. Charles beamed, and after his guests departed, he hastily summoned his French cook, commanded him to keep the recipe a royal secret and sealed the bargain by granting the cook a handsome yearly pension.
It proved a poor investment. By the time Charles was beheaded by his political enemies in 1649, the secret was out and every nobleman in England was setting his own table with ice cream.
Today, ice cream is no longer the dish reserved for kings and noblemen. It is enjoyed by nearly everyone in almost every part of the world and comes very close perhaps to being a universal dessert.
In the United States, it is the favorite dessert. Americans last year consumed a record 800 million gallons, more than all other countries combined and an average of about 18 quarts per person. Some 50 million people eat it every day. Where once it came in three flavors only—vanilla, chocolate and strawberry—it now comes in 200 flavors, mixed with soda, topped with nuts and syrup, frozen on a stick, perched on a cone, served in a cup or as a sandwich.
Although King Charles' cook may have hastened the introduction of ice cream to America by so freely divulging the recipe, he cannot be credited as its inventor. Like many other foods, today's ice cream is less a discovery than a process of evolution which began with the chilling of wines and other beverages in Biblical times.
Alexander the Great, in the fourth century B.C., insisted that his drinks be cooled with packed snow. Nero, the Roman Emperor who ruled in the first century A.D., used to send teams of slaves to the mountains for snow, then mixed it with fruit juices, pulp and honey to make a kind of flavored snowball. In 1295, Italian adventurer Marco Polo returned to Venice from the Orient with a recipe for making water ices, apparently known in Asia for thousands of years.
To the Italians goes the credit for presenting fruit and cream ices in solid form. Historians believe the first to develop them was Florentine architect Bernardo Buontalenti, in about 1570. Doctors at first condemned those frozen desserts as harmful to health but changed their minds when they discovered how refreshing they were on hot summer days. By the turn of the century, the vogue for cream ices had spread throughout Italy.
Though the appearance of ice cream at King Charles' banquet in England got into the history books first, French cooks had learned the recipe years earlier from migrant Italian chefs. The first specific reference to ice cream in France, however, does not appear until 1670 in the account of a court dinner given by Louis XIV. Guests were served what "looked like a freshly laid egg, colored like those at Easter, sitting in a silver gilt cup. But before the company had time to recover from their surprise at such a novelty for dessert, they discovered that the supposed eggs were a delicious sweetmeat, cold and compact as marble."
By then, ice cream was also on sale in Paris at confectionery shops run by Neapolitans and Sicilians. At the start of the eighteenth century, it was known to most sections of Europe and was being sold in all seasons.
The first evidence that ice cream had reached America comes from a letter written in 1700 by a guest of Maryland's Governor Bladen. It notes that ". . . we had a dessert no less Curious; among the Rareties of which it was Compos'd, was some fine Ice Cream which, with the Strawberries and Milk, eat most Deliciously."
Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, wife of America's first Secretary of the Treasury, served it to George Washington in 1789 at her home in New York. He obviously enjoyed it, for he spent $200 on ice cream during the next summer. Four years later, an item in Washington's expense ledger indicates he bought a "cream machine for ice" so his staff could make ice cream whenever necessary. Historians say Washington also kept two "pewter ice cream pots" on hand at his home in Mt. Vernon.
Other founders of our nation depended upon ice cream to lighten the burdens of state and war. General Anthony Wayne once described a dinner he and his officers enjoyed at Greenville, Ohio after defeating the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near Toledo in 1794. Wayne said, "... and to cap the jubilation, dishes of ice cream, a dainty which the army had not seen since it left the East."
Dolly Madison, wife of the fourth President, was the first to serve ice cream at a White House reception. It was described as "a large shining dome of pink ice cream." White House servants had to beat it by hand and shake it up and down in a pan of salt and ice.
Ice cream had become a popular treat for the carriage trade by 1840, but it remained beyond the means of average Americans because it was so difficult and expensive to make. Then, in 1846, a woman, Nancy Johnson, took some of the work out of making ice cream by inventing the hand-cranked freezer.
Even so, anyone who grew up in a family where mom made her own ice cream remembers what a chore it was. Ice first had to be crushed in a burlap bag with a mallet or broad side of an ax. The can of ice cream mix was then emptied into a larger wooden tub or bucket, packed with a mixture of ice or snow and salt, and covered. Next came what seemed like interminable cranking of the freezer handle until the liquid mix solidified. Only the reward—liberal portions of ice cream—made this worthwhile.
Although commercial plants stopped using this kind of freezer in 1890, many rural families yearning for a dish of homemade ice cream rely on it still. For those with less ambition and nostalgia, however, ice cream can be made far more simply by freezing the mix—store-bought or made as any cookbook suggests—in the refrigerator.
Father of the ice cream industry was a Baltimore milk dealer, Jacob Fussell. During the summer of 1851, he found that he had more cream and milk than he could sell and began making ice cream to use up the surplus. His low prices put ice cream within everyone's reach and created such a demand for it that Fussell soon was able to open plants in Washington, Boston and New York. Even so, he and his competitors could turn out only a few thousand gallons each year. By 1890, pioneers had introduced ice cream to die West, and U.S. production had jumped to more than a million gallons a year.
With the advent of electricity and mechanical refrigeration, the manufacture of ice cream was made easier and faster. Today it is mass-produced in some 20,000 wholesale and retail plants around the country with still greater ease. An ice cream mix is put in one end of a "continuous process freezer"—invented in 1926 by Clarence Vogt—and seconds later shoots out the other end as semi-frozen ice cream.
Ironically, most of the forms in which we now enjoy ice cream were hit upon by chance rather than design. The ice cream soda is one example. Its origin is credited to Robert Green, a concessioner who was exhibiting a soda fountain at the Franklin Institute Exposition in Philadelphia, October 1874.
At that time, sodas were made with syrup, carbonated water and ordinary sweet cream. Green was making such a soda to demonstrate how the fountain worked when he ran out of sweet cream. He substituted some hastily-purchased vanilla ice cream, and the first ice cream soda was born. Customers mobbed his concession until the exposition closed.
The ice cream sundae has been on the American scene since the late 1890's, when most historians say it first appeared in Evanston, Illinois. Pious city fathers there, resenting the dissipating influence of the soda fountain, passed an ordinance forbidding the sale of ice cream sodas on Sunday. Some ingenious confectioners and drugstore operators, however, got around the law by serving ice cream with syrup—but without the soda.
This soda-less soda, called the Sunday soda, became so popular that orders for "Sundays" began to cross the counters on other days of the week as well. When the town fathers objected to a dish christened after the Sabbath, the spelling was changed to "sundae." Innovators have since added nuts, fruit, whipped cream and cherries until today a deluxe sundae can cost several dollars and satisfy the hunger of two average eaters.
As much an American institution as the soda and sundae is the ice cream cone. The first one appeared in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair. There, Ernest Hamwi of Damascus baked crisp, wafer-like pastry on a flat waffle iron and served it with sugar and other sweets. One day the ice cream booth nearby ran out of dishes. Hamwi came quickly to the rescue by rolling one of his thin waffles into the shape of a cornucopia. As it cooled it hardened, and the vendor put ice cream in it. The idea caught on, and within two years the cornucopia had become known simply as a "cone."
The Eskimo pie—a bar of ice cream dipped in chocolate—was dreamed up in 1921 by a man named Nelson in Waukon, Iowa. A year later, Harry Burt of Youngstown, Ohio was experimenting with chocolate coverings of his own when his daughter remarked that the rectangular slabs were too messy to handle. Burt's 21-year-old son at that moment spied some of his dad's candy lollipops nearby—then called Good Humor suckers—and suggested "handles" for the ice cream bars. It worked. When the patent for this ice cream-on-a-stick was delayed, young Burt reportedly took a gallon can of ice cream suckers to Washington and won the approval of officials by letting them sample the product.
Although the method of ice cream manufacture and the form in which it appears have changed in the last half-century, the basic recipe has not. Today, the mix of cream, milk and milk solids—products of some 23-million dairy cows each year—is blended with sweetening, eggs and a stabilizer such as gelatin to prevent the formation of ice crystals. The resulting mix is then pasteurized, homogenized, cooled and finally frozen with fruits, nuts or flavoring.
Vanilla is still the favorite flavor—in the U.S. sales exceed all other flavors combined. Chocolate is second and strawberry third, followed by a blend of vanilla and chocolate fudge, cherry vanilla, butter pecan, peach, maple nut and coffee.
In recent years, America's enthusiasm for ice cream has spilled over to create a demand for other frozen desserts. Newest on the list is soft ice cream. It has the same basic ingredients as ice cream, but the balance is slightly different. The freezing process is skipped in making soft ice cream, and the product is dispensed directly to customers from large machines.
Some 20,000 soft ice cream stands have sprung up across the country since World War II. They boast at least 36 flavors, served in 60 different ways. Many people confuse soft ice cream with the custards they remember at carnivals and beaches. They look alike, but custards have a good deal more egg content.
A familiar scene on the Atlantic seaboard at the turn of this century were the colorful pushcarts where vendors scraped shavings from a cake of ice into a paper cup and then poured on the customer's favorite syrup from a bottle that looked like those on a barber's tonic shelf. Though not directly related to the development of ice cream, the pushcarts undoubtedly played an important role in creating the taste for something cold, flavored and sweet.
Ice cream and American social life have always been closely linked, but not for the reason mentioned by Ralph Waldo Emerson more than a century ago. "We dare not trust our wit for making our house pleasant to our friend," he observed, "and so we buy ice cream." Closer to reality, perhaps, is the fact that everyone buys ice cream because everyone likes ice cream.