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Volume 54, Number 4July/August 2003

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Zalabia and the First Ice-Cream Cone

Written by Jack Marlowe
Photographed by David Alan Harvey

While waiting in line at my favorite ice-cream store, I noticed a hand-painted sign that colorfully proclaimed: "At the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Mr. Ernest Hamwi was selling Zalabia, crisp wafer-like pastries baked on a waffle iron, a recipe that originated around the Persian Gulf. Because of the high demand, the ice cream booth next to Hamwi's stand ran out of dishes. Mr. Hamwi quickly rolled one of his pastries into a cone shape to assist his neighboring vendor. Within a few seconds, the cone cooled and hardened and THE FIRST ICE CREAM CONE WAS SERVED." "What a fine story," I thought. "If only it were so simple."

"We do not have any photographs of Ernest Hamwi, nor have we ever been able to find any record of his concession...nor any proof of his existence in St. Louis at all," says Ellen Thomasson, curatorial assistant for the Missouri Historical Society. "There were several claims to the invention of the ice-cream cone at the fair, all made many years after the fact. As far as we can tell, not one has been substantiated."

Nor, it turns out, do zalabia hail from the Arabian Gulf: They are historically Levantine, popular in Syria, Lebanon and parts of Iraq and Turkey. For that matter, they're not made in a waffle iron—they're too flat; they most resemble Italian pizzelle, including in the grid pattern that marks their surface. (North African zalabia is a very different dessert: It consists of looping, pretzel-like strands of deep-fried batter, smothered in honey or syrup and often tinted a garish orange.)

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also called the 1904 World's Fair, was the largest the US had seen since the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It covered some 500 hectares (1235 ac) and showed off such inventions as the year-old airplane, the radio, the telephone switchboard and the silent movie, all in addition to palaces, halls and pavilions displaying the wonders and delights of the world. (There were also less memorable attractions, among them a butter sculpture of President Theodore Roosevelt and a bear made out of prunes.) With more than 18 million visitors passing through the Exposition over its seven-month run, there were also scores of vendors offering much to eat.

Hamwi and his wife, the story goes, took their meager life's savings and invested them in a zalabia booth, joining other like-minded immigrants from the Levant in attempting to transplant to the US the crisp, round, cookie-like snack so popular back home. Each zalabia was baked between two iron platens about the size of a dinner plate, hinged together and held by a handle over a charcoal fire. They were served sprinkled with sugar. The Hamwis wound up doing their cooking next to one of the approximately 50 ice-cream stands dotted around the fair, though exactly who owned the stand is in some doubt: It was either Arnold Fornachou or Charles Menches. Whoever it was, his ice cream sold faster than Hamwi's zalabia—so fast, in fact, that one day he ran out of clean glass cups. At this moment, some say, the ice-cream man saw the possibilities of the zalabia; others claim the zalabia man saw the possibilities of the ice cream.

Hamwi's story is largely based on a letter he wrote in 1928 to the Ice Cream Trade Journal, long after he had established the Cornucopia Waffle Company, which had grown into the Missouri Cone Company. Nationally, by that time, the ice-cream cone industry was producing some 250 million cones a year. Despite the lack of further detail in his account, it gained currency. Cookbooks generally credit Hamwi. The International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers recognizes his claim. The Joy Ice Cream Cone Company's Classic Waffle Cone box relates his tale.

There are, however, other stories. All involve the same setting, characters and plot: an Exposition ice-cream vendor who runs out of cups and a Syrian vendor (or Turkish—the terms were roughly interchangeable) who saves the day with a combination of zalabia and ambition.

One of the other stories is about Abe Doumar.

We know more about Abe Doumar than about Ernest Hamwi, thanks to Abe's nephew Albert, who at age 81 is today the owner of Doumar's Cones and Barbecue in Norfolk, Virginia. Like Hamwi, Abe Doumar came to the United States from near Damascus. Fifteen years old in 1895 or 1896, Abe Doumar left an apprenticeship with a carriage-maker and sailed to the US on a third-class ticket. He found itinerant work as a souvenir salesman at fairs around the country. By the time of the 1904 Exposition, he was in his early 20's. Wearing Arab clothes, he sold souvenirs along one of the fair's "22 Streets of Jerusalem" by day and, in the evenings, joined the camaraderie of the zalabia salesmen along "the Pike," the Exposition's entertainment promenade.

Abe related to Albert that it was there that he took a zalabia and rolled it into a cone, much as he had been accustomed to do with round pieces of flatbread in Syria when making a sandwich. But instead of bread, this was zalabia, and instead of filling the cone with slices of meat or balls of falafel, he added ice cream to make what he called "a kind of Syrian icecream sandwich." He shared the idea freely among the vendors, he said, and it was in this way the notion spread from stand to stand—including Hamwi's. (Today, street vendors throughout the Middle East offer approximately conical flatbread sandwiches that are eaten much like ice-cream cones.)

After the Exposition, Doumar went to North Bergen, New Jersey, where he developed what he believed was his invention into a four-iron machine that made zalabia that could be rolled into cones. In 1905 he opened ice-cream stands at Coney Island and "Little Coney Island" in North Bergen; two years later he left others to operate them while he moved to Norfolk ahead of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition there. As he prospered, he brought his parents and three brothers to the US from Syria, and much of the family still resides in Norfolk, where Doumar's has become something of a local legend. In 2001 the website Citysearch.com named Doumar's Cones and Barbecue one of the two best "comfort food" restaurants in Norfolk. Some mornings, Albert still runs the nearly 100-year-old cone machine, where each zalabia cooks for one minute between the cast iron platens before it is removed, rolled into a cone around a wooden form and allowed to cool and harden until crispy—all at a speed of some 200 cones per hour.

Yet there are still further contenders to the title Inventor of the Ice-Cream Cone, according to Linda Stradley's brief "History of the Ice Cream Cone." Nick Kabbaz, later president of the St. Louis Ice Cream Cone Company, claimed to have worked for Hamwi and said that the invention was actually his idea.

David Avayou, a Turkish immigrant who owned ice-cream shops in Atlantic City, New Jersey, claimed that he had brought his wares to St. Louis, that he had seen paper ice-cream cones in France, and that he applied the French idea—but with edible materials—at the Exposition.

Charles Menches, the icecream vendor who claimed to have worked in the stand next to Hamwi's, said that, no, it was he who first rolled two zalabia cones, and that he did so for a lady friend: One was for flowers, and the other was for ice cream.

Finally, there is Italo Marchiony of New York, who filed a patent for "small pastry cups with sloping sides" the year before the Exposition. But the bottoms of his cups were flat, not conical, and thus his post-Exposition claim that the burgeoning cone manufacturers were all violating his patent melted under the hot gaze of the law.

It is, in the end, something of a toss-up. Alixa Naff, donor and archivist of the Smithsonian's Naff Arab-American Collection, diplomatically told The Virginia Post that "there was no way I could literally refute Mr. Albert Doumar's statement that his uncle invented the ice-cream cone. ...It is such a simple technique that it may have occurred to other people at other places at about the same time. I have accepted Mr. Doumar's statement with that caveat."

Jeri Quinzio is the author of Ice Cream: A Cook's History of Cold Comfort, to be published this year by Brick Tower Press. She speculated in an article for The Raddiffe Culinary Times that "perhaps each one was the first, as far as he knew, to put ice cream into a cone."

The US Postal Service, which produced a stamp commemorating the 1904 fair, sidestepped the issue neatly, stating in a press release that in that year, "Americans were already enjoying ice cream, but the ice-cream cone was popularized at the fair."

No matter how you roll the zalabia, the tales are now part of American folklore, illuminated less by history than by the creative brilliance that joined two ideas from two parts of the world and made from them a national culinary icon. What could be more American than that?

Jack Marlowe was a lifelong writer and teacher. He taught English literature in California and Greece and served as a high school administrator in the Bay Area and, under Fulbright sponsorship, in India and Egypt. Many of his former students remained his friends until his recent death.

David Alan Harvey was a National Geographic staff photographer from 1978—the year he was named Magazine Photographer of the Year—until 1986. Now a free-lancer, he is a member of the photographic cooperative Magnum Photos.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the July/August 2003 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 2003 images.