While the exact origins of ice cream are unknown there are several historical indications and/or myths about the ancient history of this frozen treat. In the Hebrew and Christian Bible there is a reference to King Solomon enjoying cooled treats during the harvest season. Alexander the Great – it is said – loved to indulge in icy drinks flavored with honey or wine. During Nero’s reign of Rome runners harvested ice from nearby mountains for the king who flavored the ice with fruits and juices. It is even reported Nero held ice in “ice houses” – deep pits that were covered with straw. The emperors of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) are, however, often believed to have been the first people to eat “a frozen milk-like confection.” Their version was made with buffalo, goat or cow milk and was heated with flour. The aromatic Camphor was often added to enhance the texture and flavor of their frozen treat. The mixture was then placed into metal tubes and lowered into an ice pool until frozen. In medieval times, Arabs drank an icy refreshment called sherbet, (or sharabt in Arabic).
Ice cream was likely brought from Asia or Africa into Europe and over time recipes for ices, sherbets, and milk ices evolved and were served in Italian and French royal courts. The 17th century saw ice drinks being converted into frozen desserts. Antonio Latini (1642–1692) is often credited with being the first person to write down a recipe for sorbetto (or sorbet). He is also responsible for creating a milk-based sorbet, which many culinary historians consider the first “official” ice cream. In 1686, a Sicilian named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened a Paris’ café that introduced gelato – the Italian version of sorbet – to the French public. Procopio would later become known as the “Father of Italian Gelato.”
Around the same time, the French began experimenting with a frozen dessert called fromage. French confectioner Nicolas Audiger described several fromage recipes made from ices that were flavored with fruit. One such recipe included cream, sugar and orange flower water. Fromage became quite popular during 18th century France.
The origin of ice cream in America is also unclear, but we do know the frozen treat was served by many early, important historical figures. It has been noted that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson served it to their guests and, it has been said, that George Washington spent $200 to satisfy his craving for the refreshing treat. In 1700, Governor Bladen of Maryland was recorded as having served it to his guests. In 1813, Dolley Madison served a magnificent strawberry ice cream creation for President Madison’s 2nd inaugural banquet.
In 1774, a London caterer named Philip Lenzi announced in a New York newspaper that he would be offering for sale various confections, including ice cream and, it is generally believed, the first ice cream parlor in America opened in New York City in 1776.
In 1846, Nancy Johnson patented a hand-cranked freezer that established the basic method of making ice cream. This is still used today. William Young patented the similar “Johnson Patent Ice-Cream Freezer” in 1848. In 1851, Jacob Fussell (of Baltimore, MD) established the first large-scale commercial ice cream plant. Soon the technological advances of the late 19th – early 20th allowed for mechanical refrigeration and the ice cream business boomed in America!
Today, ice cream remains one of the most popular desserts in the country. Almost 10 percent of all of the cow milk produced in America is used for the creation of ice cream. While our modern world allows us to find various types of ice cream in every grocery store, many Americans still enjoy creating their own homemade ice cream.
The Ice Cream Magic is a great way to remember the history of these frozen treats. It’s also a wonderful way to explore that history with children of all ages.