Meet Agnes B. Marshall, the Victorian Queen of Ice Cream

udra/iStock via Getty Images
udra/iStock via Getty Images

At the extravagant dinner parties of Victorian England, the nation’s well-to-do dazzled their peers with beautiful displays of sumptuous dishes. A sample menu might start with carrot soup, oxtail soup, and two types of fish, followed by mutton, sweetbreads, oyster patties, and rabbit fillets. Next were turkey, beef, ham, and chicken. For the third course, roast hare, duck, potatoes, mushrooms, vol-au-vent stuffed with preserved fruit, and fluffy meringues floating in custard.

Then, with the dessert course came a culinary showstopper: ice cream. The frosty stuff was often piped, molded, and elaborately decorated. And there to school hosts in the art of ice cream making was Agnes B. Marshall, the 19th century guru of frozen treats.

Agnes B Marshall ice cream molds
The Book of Ices // Public Domain

Marshall wrote two cookbooks devoted solely to “ices”—ice creams, sorbets (which contained alcohol), mousses, and chilled soufflés. The books’ pages were packed with detailed recipes, which also served as handy advertisements for the many products that Marshall marketed and sold. Readers were instructed to freeze their ice creams in appliances that she patented, sculpt their desserts using molds that she commissioned, flavor their custards with Marshall’s syrups, and tint their concoctions with Marshall’s food coloring. Long before Rachael Ray was selling non-stick cookware and Martha Stewart had her own wine label, Marshall transformed her name into a household brand.

She was not the only Victorian woman to run a successful business, but her female peers often inherited their companies from a deceased spouse, food historian Peter Brears tells Mental Floss. The “Queen of Ices,” as Marshall was dubbed, sat on the throne of a self-made empire—and that, Brears says, made her “exceptional.”

Little is known about Marshall’s early life, but she appears to have come from relatively modest beginnings. She was born Agnes Bertha Smith in 1855, in Walthamstow, Essex, England. Her father was a clerk. In 1878, she married Alfred Marshall, and they had four children. Marshall’s husband provides us with one of the few known clues into her culinary training. In an 1886 interview, he noted that “Mrs. Marshall has made a thorough study of cookery since she was a child, and has practiced in Paris and Vienna with celebrated chefs.” But the details of her education remain largely mysterious. According to Brears, Marshall “suddenly appears” as a charismatic force on London’s culinary scene.

Agnes . Marshall, ice cream queen
Mrs. A. B. Marshall's Larger Cookery Book of Extra Recipes // Public Domain

In 1883, she opened a cookery school in the capital and went on to publish four cookbooks: The Book of Ices (1885), Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Book of Cookery (1888), Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Larger Cookery Book of Extra Recipes (1890), and Fancy Ices (1894). She also launched a weekly magazine called The Table, operated an employment agency for domestic staff, and traveled across England giving cooking demonstrations. Audiences adored her.

“[F]or two hours she completely engrossed the earnest attention of some 600 people, instructing and entertaining them at the same time,” The Times reported in 1887.

Marshall was a cook of diverse talents, able to whip up everything from roast turkey to vegetable curry to apple tarts. But within the realm of frozen desserts, her ingenuity truly shone—as did her business savvy.

Until the mid-Victorian period, ice cream had been an expensive delicacy, because ice was hard to come by. Only those wealthy enough to own ice houses—storage structures with cool, underground chambers—were able to enjoy frozen dishes year-round. In the mid-19th century, England began importing ice from the United States and Norway, making the chilly commodity more accessible to the upper-middle classes. A wider demographic could now prepare ice cream at home, and Marshall was ready to capitalize on the opportunity. Her books catered to moderately wealthy housewives, who did not boast the luxury of a large kitchen staff, but still wanted to transform their desserts into the striking displays that Victorian fashions demanded.

Marshall’s recipes burst with a cornucopia of flavors: vanilla, chocolate, tangerine, cherry, peach, almond, and even lobster, to name a few. She also provided detailed instructions on how to present the ices. Pineapple ice cream was to be frozen in the shape of a pineapple; peach ice cream sculpted into a cluster of peaches; coffee mousse crafted into a geometric tower and surrounded with asparagus spears made of biscuit cream—all with the help of Marshall-brand molds.

Agnes B Marshall ice cream molds
The Book of Ices // Public Domain

To create these delectable dishes, home cooks needed an ice cream maker. The machines were first patented in the early 19th century and consisted of a metal container that was placed inside a wooden tub packed with ice and salt. Cooks would pour the ice cream mixture into the metal container and churn it with a paddle, which aerated the mixture and produced a smooth, velvety dessert, rather than a cold, rocky lump. Hoping to improve on earlier models, Marshall patented an ice cream maker of her own.

“Instead of the old ice cream machines, which were tall and narrow, she devised one which was very shallow and broad,” Brears says. “And that meant that the freezing mixture had much greater surface contact to the ice cream container and froze quicker.”

Marshall also patented a range of “ice caves”—metal boxes inside larger containers that were packed with a salt-ice mixture, keeping dishes chilled until they were ready to serve. Some of her experimentation was quite avant-garde. In a 1901 issue of The Table, she suggested using liquid air to freeze ice cream on the spot at dinner parties, proclaiming that “as a table adjunct its powers are astonishing.” Today, more than a century after Marshall made her recommendation, ice cream shops deploy liquid nitrogen to make “ultrasmooth” confections.

Agnes B Marshall ice cream molds
The Book of Ices // Public Domain

In the early 1900s, after years of cooking, churning, and charming, Marshall began to experience bouts of ill health. A terrible blow came in 1904, when she was thrown from a horse during a riding session. She never fully recovered, and died on July 29, 1905, just three weeks shy of her 50th birthday.

In spite of all that she accomplished at a time when few women worked outside the home, Marshall is not well-known today. The lavish aesthetic that she represented went out of fashion after World War I, when aristocrats began to sell off their estates and rigid class divisions started to soften. “There was a dissenting rejection against Victorian fussiness,” Brears says. And Marshall, who once guided the nation’s dining trends, was largely forgotten.

But with creativity and drive, Marshall had grown her business to towering heights on a foundation of frozen desserts.

Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?

iStock
iStock

Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Each State’s Favorite Christmas Candy

CandyStore.com
CandyStore.com

Halloween might be the unrivaled champion of candy-related holidays, but that doesn’t mean Christmas hasn’t carved out a large, chocolate Santa-shaped niche for itself in the sweets marketplace. And, of course, we can’t forget about candy canes, peppermint bark, and the red-and-green version of virtually every other kind of candy.

To find out which candies merrymakers are filling their bowls and stomachs with this holiday season, CandyStore.com analyzed survey responses from more than 32,000 consumers across the nation and compiled their top responses into one mouthwatering map.

As it turns out, 13 states—from California all the way to New Jersey—are reaching for mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups over any other holiday candy. Something about that shimmery tinfoil really does make you feel like you’re unwrapping a tiny, tasty gift.

CandyStore.com Top Christmas Candy by State

Source: CandyStore.com

And, if you hoped everyone would kiss candy corn goodbye until next October, we have some bad news: “reindeer” corn, with red, white, and green stripes, is the top choice in a staggering eight states, all of which are in the eastern half of the country. Tied with reindeer corn was peppermint bark, which, given how much white chocolate it contains, is also a pretty polarizing choice.

Candy canes and Hershey’s Kisses clinched third place with a respectable six states apiece, but other Christmas classics didn’t perform nearly as well—chocolate Santas and M&M’s came out on top in only two states each.

After that, there were some rather unconventional competitors, including Starburst, Arkansas’s favorite holiday candy; and Pez, which somehow won the hearts of residents of both Louisiana and New Mexico. 

And, unless you’re time-traveling from the 18th century, you’re probably not surprised that sugarplums didn’t make the map at all—find out what they actually are (hint: not plums!) here. You can also search the full list of state favorite candies below.

Source: CandyStore.com

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