The ice cream parlor, ice cream social and ice cream truck are all images of simple summer fun. There is hardly a more satisfying treat to mark our warm weather celebrations than that cool, creamy indulgence and all-American dessert icon.
But like most icons, ice cream has a colorful past. Beginning its life in cold-weather European locales, where ice and snow served as both ingredient and refrigerant, ice cream was once a delicacy only royalty could afford. It was refined in France and immigrated to America with European confectioners. It has ties to the temperance movement and a murky prohibition-era past, was promoted by the movie industry and even has some hefty science background.
It turns out that ice cream, our humble summer fancy, has both a wholesome reputation and an enigmatic history.
The world’s love affair with ice cream is centuries old. Emperor Nero sent workers into the mountains of Italy to collect snow so that his kitchen staff could prepare concoctions flavored with fruit and honey. In 1533, the young Italian princess Catherine de Medici went to France as the bride of the future King Henry II, bearing recipes for frozen desserts. Later, the French court of Louis XIV served ice cream at royal banquets. The first public sale of ice cream was in a Paris cafe in 1670.
American founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson developed a taste for ice cream while visiting royals in Europe, and Dolley Madison was known to serve it at White House state dinners.
Because ice was expensive and refrigeration had not been invented, ice cream was still considered a treat for the wealthy or for those in colder climates. In a note written in 1794, Beethoven described the Austrians’ fear that an unseasonably warm winter would prevent them from enjoying ice cream.
Several innovations in the early nineteenth century made ice cream more accessible to the public: ice harvesting, the insulated ice house, and the American invention of the had-cranked ice cream freezer. Later, industrialization brought electric power, steam power and refrigeration, making ice cream available to the masses.
Although the first documented full-time manufacturing of ice cream was in Baltimore in 1851, the most famous American ice cream of the time came from Philadelphia, owing to the proximity of fine dairies and rich pastures on which to feed the cows.
Ice cream vendors, precursors of today’s ice cream trucks, appeared in cities where large communities of Italians settled. The “hokey pokey” man, as the vendor was called, became a fixture of popular street culture, selling ice cream in paper cups and cones, from a mobile cart. The Italians gave us the Neapolitan ice cream combination, which we recognize as vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors. The original version featured three distinct flavor layers of green (pistachio), white (vanilla), and orange, that when sliced, imitated the Italian national flag.
The temperance movement, and the resulting prohibition era, proved to be very profitable for the ice cream industry. Temperance advocates promoted ice cream as an indulgence morally superior to demon rum, and much less likely to cause a picnic to devolve into debauchery. With the passage of the Volstead Act, which outlawed the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol, many people turned to ice cream instead. Breweries were converted to ice cream factories, although some creameries were rumored to be fronts for alcohol distribution.
Ironically, temperance instilled in Americans a new love of patent medicines, which were mostly alcohol. Whether by coincidence or design, the drug store soda fountain, where ice cream was a favored treat, was commonly located next to the pharmacist’s counter.
The movie industry was especially instrumental in the promotion of ice cream as an all-American dessert. Many date movies and romantic scenes have featured stars enjoying ice cream at the soda fountain or sweet shop.
Today, the U.S. ice cream industry sells more than a billion gallons each year. In fact, eight percent of all the milk produced here ends up in a frozen dairy product. The U.S. Department of Agriculture mandates that ice cream must contain at least 10 percent milk fat and a minimum of six percent non-fat milk solids. Most premium ice creams contain about 14 percent milk fat. Stabilizers and emulsifiers make up less than one percent of the mixture. A gallon must weigh at least 4.5 pounds.
There are thousands of flavors of ice cream, from the traditional vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, to the experimental, like bacon, garlic or rosemary. In terms of specific ingredients, most recipes for ice cream are simple and people have been making it in one flavor or another for centuries. It is basically made up of little ice crystals, air bubbles and fat droplets, held together in a thick sugar solution. But in scientific terms, it is complicated substance.
Ice cream is a colloid, a type of emulsion, which is a combination of substances that don’t normally mix together. The presence of air means that ice cream is also technically a foam.
To accomplish the emulsion, ingredients must be simultaneously frozen and whipped. Whether made in a home kitchen with a hand crank, or in a factory, the process is mainly the same. The ice cream mixture gets whipped (and aerated) by a blade inside a container, or tube, that is chilled from the outside. Ice and salt (which lowers the freezing point of water) accomplishes the chilling in home churns, while liquid ammonia is more often used in commercial operations. Neither the salt nor the ammonia ever come into contact with the ice cream. When churning is complete, the product is frozen, but still soft-serve consistency. At this point, chunks of candy, fruit and other tasty ingredients can be added. The mixture can then be scooped into cartons or other containers and frozen further, for a firmer texture. The moment ice cream leaves the freezer it starts to lose its structure, and once lost, nothing can bring it back.
That’s why ice cream straight from the churn is among the best stuff on earth, as anyone can attest who has ever cranked the churn at a summer picnic, and been rewarded with the first sweet, creamy serving.