Ruminations: A Brief History of Ice Cream

Ruminations: A Brief History of Ice Cream

Author’s Note: “Ruminate (verb) 1. to chew on, 2. to meditate or muse; ponder.

There is a long and unique story behind every meal, weekend barbecue, and late night snack. Every month, the Ruminations column explores the cultural and social histories of your favorite bites. If you have ever pondered over a plate and considered “who first put these ingredients together” or “where did this dish come from,” these brief history lessons answer the question, “why am I eating this again?”


As summer draws to a close, there are few days left to bask in the late sunsets and take in the sights; the dusk hours of August might be the last time to see children lined up at an ice cream truck until the next year’s season. And in the long stretch of winter, we will pine for hot summer days spent sweating over an ice cream cone.

Ice cream has a long history as what many might call a “decadent” food. Even now, a store-bought pint is reserved for certain occasions: when it’s hot, or when a celebratory dessert is called for. This “special” association isn’t new to ice cream; for the greater part of its storied life (the act of turning milk into a creamy, frozen treat has been around for thousands of years), ice cream was a rare and prized dessert. Only the very wealthy could tap into this delicacy because without the resources—in part, namely access to some form of freezing apparatus—ice cream is as good as melted.

Ancient history has seen more than one type of sweetened or flavored frozen dessert; one such version using milk, rice and snow appeared during China’s Shang Dynasty. This version was closer to what we would call a sherbet. It wasn’t until in the 1500s, nearly a millennia later, that early iterations of gelati became fashionable with Italy’s aristocracy. This proto-gelato traveled with Italian royalty to France, where Parisian confectioners added eggs (apparently frozen cream, milk, sugar and fruit weren’t quite decadent enough).

For the next several hundred years, ice cream was an extravagance strictly for the sophisticated. One reason was the availability of ice, which only the wealthiest estates had access to if they built an icehouse on their property. Another was the clunky “pot freezer” method; this relied on a large cylinder acting as an ice bath or “pot,” and a smaller cylinder containing the mix, which was placed within the ice bath. The smaller cylinder was then rotated by hand until the mix was frozen to the walls, from which it was then scraped and mixed back in intermittently. Logistically speaking, only those with means (and a kitchen staff) could pull off this elaborate production.

Yet today, anyone who has ever purchased ice cream from the ubiquitous truck parked curbside in a childhood neighborhood, who has chased down a vendor’s cart, or simply bought a scoop from the local drug store, knows that ice cream—in all its variations—is a dessert for the people. Advances in commercial refrigeration in the early 1900s allowed greater public access to ice and cold storage. And when new production methods and recipes were invented by food pioneers from Philadelphia, ice cream became a quintessential, and more importantly, accessible summer indulgence.

One of the distinctions to come about in Philadelphia was a slight change in recipe. Ice cream had been in the United States since the time of the colonies, but what was served to colonial elite was a faithful recreation of the European dessert, relying heavily on egg as a binder. This dense, egg-based version is typically called custard nowadays, but at the time was referred to as “French-style.” The Philadelphia confectioners omitted the use of egg in lieu of a milk and heavy cream base. The result was a simpler product, known as “Philadelphia-style ice cream.” This style incorporated more air in the final product, so it also tended to be lighter (and colder) than custard-style ice creams.

The modification wasn’t Philadelphia’s only imprint on ice cream; more ambitious creameries also ventured into new production methods. One of these early adopters was Augustus Jackson, also known as “the father of ice cream.” Jackson left a coveted position as White House chef to move to Philadelphia and try his hand at the ice cream craze. He experimented not only with new flavors and ingredients for the eggless Philadelphia-style, but also with production methods. He played with salt and ice ratios to lower the temperature of the ice bath, and mechanized the once cumbersome pot freezer method. Instead of turning the cylinder by hand, Jackson innovated, stirring the mix using with a hand crank, which streamlined the production process. He then manufactured storable tins that could be sold to other ice cream parlors.

Another Philadelphian to experiment with ice cream manufacturing was one-time resident Nancy M. Johnson. Johnson patented an “artificial freezing machine” in 1843, which capitalized on Jackson’s mechanical crank method. Like previous methods, a cylinder containing the mix was placed in an ice bath, but instead of rotating the entire cylinder, a dasher (a perforated paddle) attached to a hand crank spun, or “whipped” the mix within the cylinder. A colder, but fluffier ice cream could then be produced faster, and in larger quantities with little overhead. The “artificial freezer” become the driving force for newfound ice cream parlors, like the historic Philly-based Bassetts Ice Cream.

The Philadelphia boom helped to make ice cream a truly democratic experience. The ice cream parlor was soon accompanied by the drug store soda fountain, by hokey pokey men—vendors pushing handcarts—and eventually, by the ice cream truck. But this only meant that ice cream had gone from a rare and limited commodity to the people’s dessert, so that anyone could enjoy a scoop—the ideal end to the fleeting summer days.

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