Let’s begin with a disclaimer: No one person invented the ice cream; it evolved and is still evolving. The Chinese are credited with the earliest form of refrigeration for preserving foods. They did so even after winter, in well-insulated underground cellars by harnessing ice, as far back as 1000 BC, with parallels in other ancient civilisations a little later. For example, ancient Greeks and Romans used pits to store snow. Hunter-gatherers in the extreme Northern hemisphere were also known to have used natural caves of ice for food storage and preservation.
When it comes to frozen desserts, it all began with the Chinese slurping flavoured ices around 3000 BC. They doused closed containers of syrup with ice and salt, or saltpeter, to lower the freezing point, to produce sweetened chunks of ice and cold beverages. But it was a delicacy only meant for kings. Its inaccessibility made ice a luxury. King T’ang of the Shang dynasty (1675-1646 BC) employed “ice men” to lug ice from the mountains to his palace kitchen to pamper his taste buds with iced tea, flavoured ice and the rudiments of ice cream itself – made of cold milk and flour. Legend has it that Roman Emperor Nero (AD 54-68), too, sent slaves to the mountains to bring snow, which was served to him with fruit juices and honey. But then, many a decadent myth has been associated with Nero, and thus must be ingested with a pinch of salt, which incidentally, as stated earlier, prolongs the life of ice.
Ice cream by any other name…
The definition of ice cream varies all over the world. While some countries use the term loosely for all frozen desserts, some others like the United States have strict categories, like frozen custard, frozen yoghurt, sorbet and gelato, and distinguish them from milk/ cream-based varieties.
Culinary history chronicles Egyptian royalty getting ice shipped from Lebanon. It not only found its way into drinks or was served as fruit-encrusted delicacies, but was also carved into exquisite sculptures to adorn banquet tables. In fact, the earliest “icehouses” were to be found in Mesopotamia, around what’s now mainly Iraq and Syria. Though they were initially built to harness ice, they soon turned into cold stores. Alexander got trenches dug and filled them with snow in Petra in Jordan, so that his invading army kept its cool with drinks in the sweltering heat.
Thus, ice was not the preserve of only those in cold climes. Wealthy Arabs and Persians enjoyed thick chilled milk topped with rosewater, dried fruits and nuts and vermicelli, to create an early avatar of ice cream. They also concocted cool sherbet – a chilled fruit drink embellished with sugar and honey – which we now know as the frozen dessert, sorbet – a non-dairy variety of ice cream. An aside: Sherbet comes from the Turkish and Persian serbet, derived from shabah/seriba, meaning a drink in Arabic. In Italian, it became sorbetto and in French sorbet, a term used widely in restaurant menus.
However, it took several centuries before these delicacies reached the West. Around the 13th century, Italian merchant- traveller, Marco Polo discovered iced desserts during his famed visits to the Far East, and brought back the recipes and techniques with him, which Italian chefs improved. They went on to become masters at chilling and freezing, and turned Italy into a nation of iced dessert aficionados.
Italian noblewoman, Catherine de Medici, when she married Henry II of France in 1533, took chefs and confectioners as part of her entourage, who introduced frozen confectionery to their French counterparts. England seems to have discovered these culinary delights around the same time. The Head Chef of Charles I is said to have rustled up “Cream Ice” – which would later become ice cream – whose recipe was a closely guarded secret. However, official history is rather fuzzy about the dessert route – from China to Italy, and from there to France and England, and we are on rather thin ice here.
Winning war the cool way
Ice cream is a mood-enhancer, and tubs of them were served to the American troops during World War II in an attempt to boost their morale. In 1945, the first “floating ice cream parlour” was set up for sailors serving in the Western Pacific zone. Americans celebrated V-Day by gorging on dollops of ice cream. If statistics were to be believed, the nation consumed over 20 quarts of ice cream per person in 1946 in post-war euphoria!
However, following the cold trail further, Francesco Procopio Dei Coltelli, a Sicilian restaurateur, introduced a recipe blending cold milk, cream, butter and eggs at Café Le Procope in Paris in 1660, thus making ice cream available to the general public and the rest of Europe. This opened the floodgates for experimentation with endless mouth-watering flavours and ingredients and imaginative names. Housewives started making ice cream at home, and recipes began to be published and exchanged in Italy and France in the 17th century and in England by the 18th century.
It was only when European settlers went to America did frozen desserts travel with them there, as did lemonades and iced tea – erroneously thought to be New World inventions. However, America embraced and popularised the entire array of frozen sweets and ice cream, so much so that in 1813, Dolley Madison, wife of US President James Madison, served ice cream at her husband’s Inaugural Ball.
Through all this, the basic method of making them remained the same: Various ingredients were mixed thoroughly, poured into a pot with a tightly closed lid and placed snugly into a pail filled with ice and salt on a bed of straw. This was kept in a cellar for about four hours and allowed to set, before being taken out and tipped on to a bowl for serving.
The first major breakthrough in its making was achieved by Nancy Johnson of New Jersey, who invented the hand-cranked freezer in 1846, a device still in use. It consisted of a tub, a cylinder with close-fitting lid and a removable dasher or a paddle. Turning it agitated a container of ice cream mix in the cylinder in a bed of salt and ice, until the mix was frozen. The US Patent Office issued Patent Number 3254 to Johnson in September 1843. William Young improved upon it and patented his device in May 1848, but called it the “Johnson Patent Ice Cream Freezer”, in a nod of acknowledgement to the lady.
From here, commercial production of ice cream was but a step away, and in 1851, Jacob Fussell, a Baltimore milk dealer, started manufacturing them, and is regarded as the father of the American ice cream industry. Over the years, aided by technological innovations like electricity, refrigeration, new methods of freezing and sophisticated equipment – like homogenisers and packing machines – it has turned into a highly lucrative business.
Sale of harnessed ice from frozen waterbodies itself was big business. But by the 1890s, pollution and dumping began to pose health concerns. Mechanical refrigeration solved the problem.
While grocery store freezers made ice cream easily accessible, delivery vehicles with freezers took them to households. The bell-ringing, brightly painted ice cream vans at parks, beaches, fairgrounds and neighbourhoods sold them to children on hot summer afternoons. That which had once pleased royal palates could now be had for a few cents. Ice cream soda appeared on the scene in 1874, and the profession of the “soda jerk” entered urban lore. Dating couples thronged soda fountains at air conditioned movie theatres during intermissions or hung out at ice cream parlours dotting the country’s landscape, making ice cream part of the American youth subculture and a way of life.
Watch this space for more ice cream-lore and cold facts in Part II.
The writer is the Associate Editor of Climate Control Middle East. She can be reached at email@example.com