What melts in your mouth and also your hand, is the number one dessert consumed by New Englanders over all other choices, and is a must-have for any birthday party? Okay, so it was an easy question – ice cream, of course. The Northeast buys more ice cream from retail outlets than any other part of the country. No one knows exactly why we have this love affair with the cold confection. Perhaps our long, miserable winters cause us to seek something sweet, even if it means shoveling inches of snow away from the front door. We just don’t care. I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!
My life would be so empty without the nearly daily dose of ice cream I must have during the summer months. Today, for example, I shared a large peanut butter Oreo cookie mountain with my husband. Yesterday, it was vanilla soft serve. I’m not discriminating in the type of ice cream I love to eat. I like both soft serve and traditional hard pack versions. Eating ice cream after taking the pup for a stroll around the Village, or driving long distances to have a cone of something wonderful at a homemade ice cream stand is bliss, joy and all things good combined: nirvana.
We humans have developed a craving for sugar-based foods. That is a given. It isn’t my fault; it isn’t your fault; let’s blame pre-historic man, if that is possible. In preparing to write this article, I researched the development of taste, the salt and sugar receptors in the tongue, the role of smell in our food choices and similar scientific data. I was overwhelmed with how much information there actually is on the topic. And I was further led down the “guilty as charged” trail when I learned that I’m probably responsible for my son’s and grandchildren’s zealous lust of all things sweet. I’m sorry, kids, I didn’t know any better.
The simple truth is that you can’t write about ice cream and expect to come up smelling like a nutritionist no matter how much yogurt, nuts, fruits and berries you add to the mixture. So I abandoned that angle and went in for the sheer delight factor. Ice cream tastes good. We love it and have learned over vast eons of time how to create sweet delicious tastes like ice cream.
As a kid growing up, ice cream was a special treat, not something that was regularly purchased and stored in the freezer. We didn’t have a freezer and an icebox wouldn’t keep ice cream frozen for very long. So, ice cream was something to be cherished and enjoyed only as a special treat.
Birthdays always included a cake (yes, you may recall my mother enjoyed convenience cooking, so our birthday cakes were from packages), and our favorite flavor of ice cream. In the summer, we’d take a ride to either Dainty Maid Ice Cream or Howard Johnson’s, both located in East Wareham back in the 1950s, or Gulf Hill Dairy (known today as Oxford Creamery) for a cone of something wonderful. How I loved to see that billboard with the 3D cows protruding from it. It had to be the coolest sign ever to a kid.
The most adventurous flavors back then would have been ice creams like maple walnut, chocolate chip, frozen pudding, grapenut and maybe rocky road. But honestly, I never heard of rocky road until I was an adult. We were happy with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry with possibly chocolate sprinkles. You might be interested to know that today, in spite of all the flavors available, vanilla reigns supreme at numero uno over all the others. The fragrance and taste of vanilla is intoxicating.
The Old Farmers’ Almanac tells us that as far back as 54 A.D., Roman emperors were sending their slaves into the mountains to bring back ice. The ice would be mixed with honey and fruit pulp for a sherbet-like concoction. Many decades later, historical records from China document “ice men” being deployed into the mountainsides to collect ice for the palaces. The rulers craved a treat that incorporated fermented milk, flour and camphor with the ice. That doesn’t sound anywhere near as appealing as what the Romans were eating, but taste is very subjective, isn’t it?
The history of ice cream continues through the ages. Our early colonists brought recipes with them from Europe, which also blended ice and fruits. Famous for many things, President Washington’s 1782 inventory of personal effects lists a “cream machine” for ice. In 1843, Nancy Johnson of Philadelphia applied for a patent for an artificial freezer that included a tub, cylinder, lid, dasher and crank. This type of device is still widely used today. Italo Marchiony applied for an ice cream cone patent in 1903. And finally, by 1939, grocery stores were carrying commercially produced ice cream, even though most homes couldn’t store it.
Okay, here’s a cool (pun intended) dinnertime conversation theme: Which well-known political figure from the U.K. helped developed soft serve ice cream? Believe it or not, there is some evidence that the esteemed Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the U.K., was part of a team of university science majors who developed the technique for whipping air into ice cream, hence producing soft serve. Soft serve ice cream can be made in two ways: by whipping tons of air into the hard version or by using liquefied sweetened milk mixture that is frozen, blended and pumped with air to achieve a soft, silky ice cream. Here is the U.S., two ice cream brands claim to be the first to introduce us to this gooey “must eat it fast” stuff – Dairy Queen and Carvel.
Time is running out, and I haven’t even touched on ice cream cakes!
If there is ice cream, then there must also be ice cream sundaes. Buffalo & Ithaca, NY; Evanston, Ill.; Two Rivers, Wisc.; all claim to have been the first to invent the ice cream sundae.
Oh, before I forget, let me touch on the soda fountains that were once a fixture in many drug stores. At the turn of the last century, pharmacists saw a business opportunity with the advent of soda water flavored sweetly. Thus, they installed soda fountain equipment, where they served tall, cool drinks. In 1874, one Robert Green is credited with creating the first ice cream soda to celebrate Philadelphia’s sesquicentennial. A personal favorite of mine combines vanilla ice cream with cola.
The popularity of soda fountains can’t be overstated. By 1916, there were 100,000 soda fountains in New York City alone. Fast foot outlets replaced the soda fountains and marble counters that were so common in every nook and cranny around our great country. Another lovely institution bit the dust.
But when all is said and done on the history of ice cream, it was really the Italians who in the 17th century blended a frozen dessert that would become gelato for them and ice cream for us. There are differences between these two frozen bits of heaven; basically, the amount of fat, churning processes and temperatures, but the basic idea of ice cream can be granted to those artisans.
A dear friend of mine makes his own ice cream. He uses a machine. But there are numerous methods and recipes available on the Internet that require nothing more than a container with a tight lid.
Making ice cream in your kitchen does mandate a time commitment. So, I’ve decided that this coming winter when the weather cramps my roving style and forces me to play in my kitchen versus my gardens, I’ll take on the challenge of making my own ice cream. It might prove dangerous, especially if I get good at reproducing my favorite food in my own house. I’m willing to chance it because last winter, we purchased a treadmill. Now if I can find a way to eat ice cream while walking on the treadmill, winter won’t be nearly so depressing, except when I step on the scale.
By Marilou Newell