A Cool History of Ice Cream

Cleland Rimmer/Getty Images
Cleland Rimmer/Getty Images

It’s been said that Dolley Madison, wife of president James Madison, helped bolster support for her antisocial husband in Washington by being a gregarious and charming hostess. Her celebrated parties often included music, elaborate dinners, and plenty of drinks.

For dessert, there was oyster ice cream.

In the early 1800s, there were no accepted rules about how to flavor, prepare, or even serve ice cream, other than the fact it had to be done rather quickly. An absence of mechanical refrigeration meant that chefs relied on ice houses—where large chunks of ice were stored—and elaborate, hand-cranked machines in order to dish out the good stuff. Enjoying ice cream was an event normally only enjoyed by society’s elite. How did we get from there to producing 1.54 billion gallons of it annually? To answer that, we’ll need to delve into the history of ice cream.

Siblings share an ice cream
Fox Photos/Getty Images

No one is entirely sure who first had the notion to prepare a sub-zero dessert treat. Stories abound about Alexander the Great snacking on snow flavored with honey and nectar and of Roman emperors sending lackeys out to fetch snow from the mountains for a primitive sno-cone.

“Whether it started in China or Italy, no one was really keeping record,” Amy Ettinger, author of the just-released Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America, tells Mental Floss.

It’s likely that credit for mixing dairy products into a frozen confection should belong to the Tang Dynasty of the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries. Using milk from cows, goats, or buffalo, lowered into ice pools in metal tubes, this embryonic version of ice cream was a treat for emperors. A thousand years later, Italy and France began toying with their own versions of the dessert. A milk-based sorbet recipe originated in Naples; the French used cream, sugar, and orange-flavored water to make “fromage,” though it contained no cheese.

Ice cream’s delicious pilgrimage from Europe to America is a little easier to track. According to Ettinger, it was George Washington who helped popularize the treat among high society beginning in the 1770s. Washington learned of ice cream through Norborne Berkeley, the royal governor of the colony of Virginia, who served it at a dinner Washington attended. “Washington loved it and started serving it at state functions,” she says.

At Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon, a 300-piece set for making and serving ice cream took up permanent residence in the kitchen. Because it was such a labor-intensive ordeal, serving ice cream became a status symbol. “There were bragging rights to it,” Ettinger says. “It became very popular in Washington at very elite functions.”

Ice cream continued to be a rare treat, with political figures like Thomas Jefferson and the Madisons reserving it for special occasions. Returning from France, Jefferson even jotted down a recipe for it that called for two bottles of “good cream,” six eggs, and a half-pound of sugar flavored with vanilla and then frozen. As the use of insulated ice houses grew, so did ice cream's popularity: Some July 4 parties in Washington held sightings of the delicacy that surprised people for being frozen in the heat of summer.

Throughout the 1800s, a series of technological innovations helped usher ice cream from exclusive events to mainstream availability. Refrigeration, homogenization, and delivery methods made the manufacture and distribution of the frozen treat possible. Ice cream was no longer part of class distinction.

British soldiers are served ice cream during World War II
Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images

According to Ettinger, 1904 was a big year. That was when the ice cream cone was popularized at the St. Louis World’s Fair, putting an end to the labor-intensive process of washing ice cream dishes at soda fountains. Suddenly, ice cream could be taken on the go, and ice cream parlors didn’t need to invest in dishwashers.

The next big shot in the arm was Prohibition. When the 18th Amendment was enacted in 1920, a number of bars and saloons converted to soda fountains, exchanging one indulgence (alcohol) for another (sugar). Even beer makers like Yuengling and Anheuser-Busch started making the sweet stuff. “That first year of Prohibition, a tremendous amount of ice cream was consumed,” Ettinger says. “Soda fountains became a social hub.” Between 1916 and 1925, American ice cream consumption went up by a staggering 55 percent.

The deluge of ice cream was accompanied by the introduction of novelties: the unfortunately-named Eskimo Pie (ice cream wrapped in a hard chocolate shell), the Drumstick (ice cream wrapped in peanuts), and Good Humor bars that came on a stick for getting plump while on the go. Even with the end of Prohibition in 1933, it would take the Great Depression and a world war to get Americans to stop eating so much ice cream.

“With the lack of sugar, production of ice cream fell off,” Ettinger says. But troops were spared any cravings. “Ice cream was served to troops for combat fatigue. It was prescribed by military doctors.” The Navy even had an ice cream barge that could produce 10 gallons every seven minutes.

Since the end of the war, virtually nothing has stopped ice cream’s dominance as the preferred way to combat a hot summer’s day. Häagen-Dazs broke the mold of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry with a wider variety of flavors, while mix-ins like Dairy Queen’s Blizzard kept shifting the goal posts for premium treats. Ice cream had become so closely identified with America that it was often the first thing sampled by people arriving on Ellis Island.

According to Ettinger—who began her research in San Francisco with the artisanal shops there and went on ride-alongs on ice cream trucks—ice cream's appeal is simple. “It’s the quintessential American dessert,” she says.

Despite the variety of flavors, no one seems as keen on oyster ice cream as Dolley Madison. Perhaps that’s because it was likely little more than frozen oyster chowder with the oysters drained out. Gross? Maybe. But no history of ice cream would be complete without it.

Naples, Florida, Resort’s Bottomless Bloody Mary Bar Costs $35 and Offers 48,000 Flavor Combinations

The Catch of The Pelican
The Catch of The Pelican

There's no limit to the snacks, garnishes, and full-fledged meals that can be served on top of a Bloody Mary. And at the Naples Grande Beach Resort in Naples, Florida, you don't have to edit yourself when assembling the cocktail. The bottomless Bloody Mary bar at the hotel's Catch of the Pelican restaurant has enough ingredients to make 48,000 possible combinations, and guests can access them all for $35, Travel + Leisure reports.

The drinks served at this bar start with either red or green Bloody Mary mix and vodka, or tequila if you want to make yours a Bloody Maria. You can dip the rim of your glass in one of the eight salt and spice mixtures created in house and up the heat factor with a dash of hot sauce—20 brands of which are available.

But the garnishes are where the bar gets serious. With 75 toppings to choose from, the spread looks more like a Vegas buffet than a Bloody Mary bar. Options include classics like olives and celery, as well as over-the-top indulgences like egg rolls, jalapeño poppers, and fried ravioli.

A single drink from the bar costs $14, but $35 for the bottomless option isn't bad if you think of the garnishes as all-you-can-eat brunch. The Catch of the Pelican also sells brunch items that aren't served on top of cocktail glasses. For diners looking for a more simple drink to go with their meal, there's a make your own mimosa bar.

The hotel restaurant serves brunch every weekend from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. If you can't make it to Naples to try the Bloody Mary bar in person, you can experience the glory in the pictures below.

Bloody Mary Bar.
The Catch of The Pelican

Bloody Mary bar.
The Catch of The Pelican

Bloody Mary bar.
The Catch of The Pelican

Bloody Mary.
The Catch of The Pelican

[h/t Travel + Liesure]

We’re Lovin’ the McSki, Sweden’s Ski-Thru McDonald’s

Per-Olof Forsberg, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Per-Olof Forsberg, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Gliding down the slopes for a few hours can leave you happily exhausted and so ravenous that you wish you could stuff a big, juicy burger in your mouth before you even get back to the lodge. At one Swedish ski resort, you can.

Lindvallen, a ski resort located approximately 200 miles northwest of Stockholm, is home to the McSki, a quaint, wood-paneled McDonald’s that you simply ski right up to. If all the surrounding snow leaves you with a hankering for a McFlurry, have at it; Delish reports that you can order anything from the regular McDonald’s menu. (Having said that, we can’t promise the McFlurry machine will actually be working.)

The ski-thru window is ideal for skiers and snowboarders who don’t want to break for a lengthy lunch, but there’s an option for people who would rather not scarf down a combo meal while standing up: According to the blog Messy Nessy, the indoor seating area can accommodate up to 140 people.

The McSki has been delighting (and nourishing) vacationers since it opened in 1996, and it’s definitely a must-visit for ski lovers and fast food aficionados alike. It’s not, however, the strangest McDonald’s restaurant in the world. New Zealand built one inside an airplane, and there’s also a giant Happy Meal-shaped McDonald’s in Dallas. Explore 10 other downright bizarre McDonald’s locations here.

[h/t Delish]

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