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Humans have been using naturally-occurring ice and snow to make drink and food cold for millennia. Snow or ice was long harvested from frozen lakes or nearby mountains, then packed in insulating materials — straw, sawdust, leaves, rabbit furs — and kept underground in ice houses through the summer months. Ancient Mesopotamia reportedly built ice houses; in China, ice houses have been around since 1100 BC; in Japan, ice was stored in 10-foot deep holes and covered with thatch from the 4th century. Most ice-storing cultures also enjoyed chilled, often sweetened beverages. Ancient Romans plucked chilled wines from dessert tables mounded with snow; during the T’ang dynasty, the Chinese drank an iced fermented milk drink called kumis; and in medieval Persia and Turkey, sharabt was sweetened syrup and flavorings mixed with ice shavings or snow, the true ancestor of the Slushy. By the end of the Renaissance, iced drinks were extremely popular with European aristocracy, especially in the Italian provinces, despite the warnings from the medical establishment that ingesting anything that cold was liable to cause serious bodily trauma or even death.
But these weren’t quite ice creams. What ice cream needed was the discovery of the endothermic properties of adding salt to ice. Though the general concept had been around for millennia, the first European mention of it in a scientific text came in 1530. It was observed that salt lowers the melting point of ice by a significant amount; this is why adding salt to the ice in the cooler keeps beers colder, and it’s also why the “salt and ice challenge,” another one of those viral bad ideas, results in serious skin damage through frostbite. But more to the point, as intrepid gastronomes soon discovered, salted ice, packed around a tub of sweetened, flavored liquid, would quickly freeze it. Scraping down the sides of the tub as it froze would yield an interesting, snow-like texture.
By the mid-1600s, Italians were using the salted ice method to make sorbetti, flavored water-based ices. Before the end of the century, contemporary reports noted “ice creams” appearing on royal banquet tables as far north as Stockholm. In 1695, a short printed pamphlet containing 23 recipes for sorbettas and “rich milk sorbetto” was sold on the streets in Naples. Five years later, the first ice cream appeared in America, served at the table of the governor of Maryland. These ices were often coaxed into astoundingly decadent forms: In 1714, the Austrian ambassador to Rome gave a reception that included an 8-foot-tall tree mounted in a large vase made of milk-whitened ice and turned on a lathe, and festooned with 150 individually attached sorbets moulded into fruits.
“Way, way back, the main way that ice cream was used to perform identity was just saying, ‘I’m incredibly affluent. If you’re part of my coterie, we can eat these foods that no one else could possibly afford,’” explained Sam Bompas, whose design group, Bompas & Parr, is mounting an upcoming ice cream exhibition in London. “And also you’ve got the most ephemeral of all dishes, one that will literally disappear in front of your eyes as you eat it.”
Though these 17th- and 18th-century ice creams were the ultimate status dishes, they weren’t like today’s version. “In ice cream, you want the smallest ice crystal size possible, because that’s what traps the air and makes it feel smooth on the palate. If you get big crystal chunks in your ice cream, it’s horrid and it’s actually what a lot of the early ice creams would have been like — just sort of syrupy and sweet and crunchy and probably chill your teeth as well,” said Bompas.
But over the 18th and 19th centuries, ice cream making techniques improved — more churning, preventing those large ice crystals form forming and helping smaller crystals distribute evenly. Ice cream became less expensive, as the cost of sugar plummeted with the expansion of the slave trade. Another big blow to the exclusivity of ice cream was the growth of the international ice trade — which Bompas described as the “most rock n’ roll, high-risk industry to be in” — pioneered in part by Massachusetts “ice king” Frederic Tudor.
In the early part of the 1800s, Tudor spent years convincing people they needed icy cold beverages in the summer, underwriting the cost of iced drinks in bars, and teaching restaurants to make ice cream. His persistence paid off. By the 1820s, he was shipping Wenham Lake ice around the country. In 1833, he managed to ship 180 tons of ice, packed in straw, all the way to Calcutta.
His shipments to Britain began inauspiciously in 1844; British customs officials didn’t know how to tax the ice, and all 300 tons melted in the docks while they tried to figure it out. But within a few years, Wenham Lake ice even had a showroom in London, with a giant, clear block of melting ice in the window. Ice cream in Britain was, by now, within the reach of more people, and street salesmen met this demand with “penny licks,” stout glass cups of ice cream, at once hugely popular and horrifyingly unsanitary. They were banned in London in 1899 after being linked to the spread of tuberculosis — as you might guess, vendors weren’t washing the cups.
‘Who could imagine a man who is genuinely fond of ice cream becoming a Bolshevik? Even strawberry ice cream would arouse no latent anarchistic tendencies.’
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Meanwhile, America had fallen hard for ice cream. Starting in the late 1700s, American cookery books included recipes for ice cream. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, all served ice cream at their tables. In colonial towns, English and European immigrants found success opening confectionery shops that sold ice cream. And ice cream became a tradition in places like New York City on Independence Day. The ice trade only intensified the American yearning for ice cream, and after the Civil War, writes Laura Weiss in “Ice Cream: A Global History,” American ice cream-making innovation — including Nancy Johnson’s 1846 hand-cranked churn and freezing bucket that is still used today, and then machines powered first by steam and later by electricity — paved the way for mass production of ice cream on an unprecedented scale.
But there was a dark side, too. The food industry was unregulated, rife with adulteration and poor hygiene. Dairy, like the meat industry, was particularly disgusting. In an 1858 exposé of “swill milk,” The New York Times reported that milk adulterated with plaster of Paris, chalk, and dyes, and taken from drunken, diseased cows fed on fermented swill from distilleries, was frequently sold to the public and the growing “ice cream saloon” industry. Nor did the humans involved in the process have it much better. Ice cream street vendors — called “hokey pokey” men from around the 1820s — tended to be immigrants, mostly Italians escaping political strife as Giuseppe Garibaldi fought a bloody battle for unification. According to contemporary reports, though some found success and brought their own ice cream traditions and recipes, many more were exploited, living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, barely making a living wage, and suffering abuse on the streets.
By the early part of the 20th century, ice cream in America had also taken on dimensions of dogmatic patriotism. Anthropologist Margaret Visser, writing in her 1986 book “Much Depends on Dinner,” noted that ice cream was “a symbol almost of national identity.” She could have dropped the “almost.” Ice cream had been served to immigrants waiting in the purgatory of Ellis Island since before the turn of the century.
One contemporary report, which appeared in newspapers across America in 1902, cast these new immigrants as yokels “much puzzled” and amazed by this icy novelty: “’Sure an’ there’s frost in th’ milk,’ said an Irish girl when the first cold spoonful surprised her throat. ‘Milk, did ye say?’ said a north of Ireland lad. ‘Begorra an’ it’s more like swatened snow, it is.’” The Italians, meanwhile, “did not take kindly to the ice cream” and wanted it “warmed up.” The story is likely contrived. What it actually conveys is how much Americans wanted immigrants to be awed by their new country.
In 1921, The Soda Fountain, a monthly trade magazine to the soda industry, published an article touting “Ice Cream as Americanization Aid,” declaring that serving ice cream to on Ellis Island would help them acquire “a taste for the characteristic American dish even before they set foot in the streets of New York.” This would not only help new immigrants assimilate to the American “standard of living,” but it would also inculcate American values: “Who could imagine a man who is genuinely fond of ice cream becoming a Bolshevik? Even strawberry ice cream would arouse no latent anarchistic tendencies, while vanilla or peach would be soothing to the very reddest of the Reds. There is as yet no record of a dangerous plot being hatched over a dish of ice cream; the temperature is too low to promote incubation.”
This was also around the time that American innovation in ice cream was matching American innovation in other spaces. Americans may or may not have actually invented the ice cream cone, but we did invent the chocolate-coated ice cream bar, the disposable individual serving size cup with the wooden spoon in the lid, the sundae, the ice cream float, and the ice cream sandwich.
But what really pushed ice cream to the top of the American dessert list was that 13-year period, starting in 1920, when it was illegal to sell alcohol. “What most Americans forget is that the greatest thing that ever happened to the ice cream industry in America is Prohibition,” Weir declared. During Prohibition, ice cream parlors filled some of the void left by closed bars, and brewers, including Yuengling and Anheuser-Busch, re-opened their operations as ice cream factories. The Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers could not have been happier — members reportedly sang a chorus at their conventions that went, “[Father] brings a brick of ice cream home instead of beer!”
By the end of the 1920s, according to The Atlantic, Americans were consuming more than a million gallons of ice cream a day, which is astonishing given that home refrigeration was still expensive and relatively uncommon. Those numbers continued to grow, even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933 to help lift the country out of the Great Depression; new methods of mass-making ice cream made it cheaper, while home freezing meant that people could actually store ice cream at home. And during World War II, while other Allies were banning ice cream under food rationing and civilian ice cream was curtailed by sugar shortages, the Army allocated enough machinery and ingredients to make 80 million gallons of ice cream for the troops each year. Even Winston Churchill clocked the American obsession with ice cream: Writing in 1942 to Lord Woolton, the wartime minister of food, Churchill noted, “They are great addicts of ice cream, which is said to rival alcoholic drinks.”
After the end of the war, ice cream was again ascendant in American civilian life. According to Visser, more than five gallons of ice cream were eaten by every man, woman, and child in America in 1946. Better refrigeration and booming disposable income meant that people could now buy tubs of ice cream and bring it home. By the 1950s, ice cream was officially no longer a seasonal treat, but a year-round product constantly in stock. By the 1970s, Americans were far and away the world’s leading consumers of ice cream, whether they were eating it at a Baskin-Robbins chain, a mom-and-pop shop, or straight from the carton at home.
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Globally, ice cream has never really declined in popularity, perhaps in part because of its enviable adaptability — as Weir pointed out, “You can make almost anything into an ice cream.” In Canada, for example, one of the most popular flavors is tiger tail, an orange-flavored ice cream base with stripes of black licorice. In the Philippines, street vendors peddle keso, a cheddar cheese and sweet cream ice cream, and ube, a purple yam that’s a cornerstone flavor in Filipino desserts. In Brazil, it’s tapioca — sweet, creamy, punctuated by little pops of tapioca pearls — or Barney-purple açaí. Innovative forms of ice cream appear all the time: “mixins” at Herrell’s, Marble Slab, and Coldstone; Dippin’ Dots; Thai “stir-fried” ice cream rolls. Even the current trend towards “clean eating” and sugar-free, dairy-free lifestyles seems to have only minimally dampened ice cream’s steady annual growth, while actually fueling another kind of market: Halo-Top, a low-calorie, low-sugar, high-protein ice cream that fits snugly in the new clean eating landscape, was the
fifth-fastest-growing private company in the United States in 2017.
There is also evidence that millennials, a generation whose lifestyle choices are driving trends in entertainment, love ice cream. Recent surveys indicate that drug-taking and drinking is lowest among millennials — and, said Bompas, “Ice cream is like the baddest thing you can do without, like, getting drunk or taking drugs.” Millennials, surveys say, are replacing those activities with food and “experiences”; ice cream neatly straddles both.
On the scale of Instagramability, the Museum of Ice Cream is somewhere above inflatable unicorn sprinklers and just below actually being Beyoncé. In the summer of 2016, when the first Museum of Ice Cream opened in New York as a pop-up immersive experience centered around ice cream and a pool filled with plastic sprinkles, all 30,000 tickets sold out in the first week. Since then, the brand has launched three other pop-up venues in Miami, Los Angeles, and most recently San Francisco, all with sprinkle pools; more than 600,000 people have visited. In 2017, the Los Angeles edition catapulted past thousands of other museums around the world to crack the top 10 of most Instagrammed museums. As Lauren Smiley wrote in The Atlantic, “It is as if Willy Wonka had redesigned his factory for the selfie age.”
The idea, explained Manish Vora, co-founder of the museum, started with the sprinkle pool. “The driving force was that we wanted to execute the sprinkle pool, whether we do it for ourselves or the public,” he said. That was two years ago; they now have 200 employees and a partnership to sell their ice creams at every Target in America.
Museum of Ice Cream isn’t strictly a museum — it’s not interested in telling the history of ice cream, it’s not dedicated to art about ice cream — nor is it just a ticketed ice cream shop. “Our museum is built around ice cream as that universal tool to bring people together. . . to create experiences that create hope, nostalgia, that use ice cream to ignite your inner child or your creativity,” explained Vora. “Many of the rooms have nothing to do with ice cream; it has to do with the feelings that ice cream and ice cream shops bring to people.”
It’s hard not to be a little bit cynical about a “museum” that is so pink and selfie-insistent and boasts a “make a statement room,” where the visitor can post a statement, any statement at all. But then again, a major part of the story of ice cream is its performative nature.
“Ice cream, like everything else, is used to construct notions of identity. Part of the reason for ice cream’s popularity now is that because it’s so photographable, and people are investing so much effort in performing identity through visual media,” explained Bompas. All those #icecreams — black charcoal ice creams, pastel vegan ice creams, ice cream tacos in lurid colors, kids and cones — show really well in our hyper-visual world.
Then there’s the truth that ice cream really does make people happy — and that’s a scientific fact (probably). In 2005, a team of London neuroscientists, in a study funded by Unilever, used functional MRI to scan the brains of people eating ice cream (specifically, the vanilla flavore by Wall’s Carte d’Or, a Unilever brand). Subjects showed marked activation in the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and feeling good, in particular the orbitofrontal cortex.
This power to make us happy has rendered ice cream far more than the sum of its delicious parts. Visser, writing in “Much Depends on Dinner,” noted that ice cream has become “invested, in European and American cultures, with what amounts to mythic power.”
Though ice cream has become cheap, it has never been quite cheapened. It remains “a sound and tasteful alternative to the empty vulgarities of junk food,” Visser wrote. It exerts a pleasant nostalgic pull, for that lost childhood, for an old-fashioned time past, for a golden era that doesn’t exist now and probably never really existed, for what Visser describes simply as “elsewhere,” — the country, the holiday, the seaside.
Or to put it another way, as Vora said, “Ice cream is just fun.”