Hearth to Hearth: Ice Cream – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – August 2001
Ice cream is everywhere in the warm weather, and often in the cold. It is a treat, especially when home made, and always has been. Think of pre-industrial civilizations and the minor miracle of eating a frozen extravagance in the midst of summer’s heat. With the problems of obtaining ice, it must have been a pleasure exclusive to royalty.
Actually, the most difficult part of the process was getting the ice. Throughout recorded history the wealthy have gone to great lengths to have it brought from often-distant mountains, packed in hay, or any other medium that would forestall melting. It is said that Alexander the Great ordered thirty deep trenches to be dug and filled with ice for the drinks of his entourage.
There are many stories of the precursors of ice cream or sherbets of ancient China, Greece and Rome, the Arabs and nineteenth-century Sicily, Marco Polo, Catherine de Medici of Italy and French Henry II, and Queen Elizabeth.. Each culture of any note developed its own special way with the recipe—Italian gelato and ices, French vanilla ice cream (thickened with egg yolks) and sorbets, or the English “ice cream” noted in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 cookbook. The path to the colonies seems clear.
They had all learned early that frozen desserts such as ice cream or sherbet needed to be chilled (though not mixed) with a certain ratio of ice and some kind of salt. Although earlier cooks could not have given a scientific explanation of the principle involved—that changing water’s physical state from solid ice to liquid water requires the absorption of heat from the nearby environment—they nevertheless knew what worked. They had learned that melting ice, when surrounding a container of sweetened cream, substantially chilled the cream mixture and changed its state from liquid to something more like a solid. The purpose of the salt was to change the melting point and cause a more rapid melt. It was likewise understood that intermittent beating and stirring kept the cream less crystalline and more velvety, a most desirable nicety.
Actually ice cream was a colonial delicacy of the privileged who brought knowledge of its preparation from England, and it is found in documents long before American independence. Yet, the best known stories tell that George Washington bought the first documented ice cream machine in 1784, while Thomas Jefferson brought the first recipe home from France in 1789. Alas, not true. A conflicting tale claims that The Great Man was first introduced to the delicacy by Mrs. Alexander Hamilton in 1789 (note contradiction in dating); and that Dolley Madison first served it at the White House. These stories may not be entirely accurate, but they surely give a clue about its high fashion. Perhaps there is little purpose in verifying kernels of truth in these Americana legends, as at that time the English had been enjoying ice cream for decades, and their recipes must surely have crossed the Atlantic with government officials, and adventurers and travelers. In fact, some thirty years before the War of Independence, in 1744, a Virginian who had dined at the Maryland governor’s mansion, left a description of a “curious” dessert: “some fine Ice Cream which, with the Strawberries and Milk, eat most Deliciously.” Colonial dining, at least in the upper classes, was apparently not far from its European roots.
Before the end of the eighteenth century, a handful of Philadelphia and New York City entrepreneurs used their knowledge of ice cream and fruit ices with good business sense and established public ice cream shops. It was an idea not to be resisted; their innovation caught on in mushrooming American cities, certainly stimulated by the growth of urban ice industries. The craze spread to early nineteenth-century cookbooks where they appeared as recipes for “frozen desserts” “frozen creams,” and “ice creams.” With a choice of home made or purchased ice cream, the frozen treat became one of the signal celebratory foods of the century and was enjoyed everywhere in the nation. Even mid-century towns on the Great Plains sold it and incorporated it into important entertainments; in some ways the Temperance movement used it as a substitute for strong drink Anything but ignored by the rich and famous, it was used in such still touted creations as Delmonico’s Baked Alaska and the Waldorf-Astoria cantalope and ice cream combination named for Lillian Russell. By the end of the century, cookbooks had entire chapters on the subject. In this age of invention, ice cream was now produced in many more flavors, and ice cream sodas were born.
By the early 1900s local ice cream and soda parlors had become an all-American social institution. Ice cream sundaes in special tulip glasses were served with a variety of sauces and toppings, and provided a substitute for the ice cream sodas considered by some to be immoral—imbibing soda on the Sabbath was sometimes thought wicked. Cones and ice cream on a stick broke into the scene and were popularized at about this time. If shops were not making their own ice cream they were supplied by numbers of factories via trucks and railroads, sometimes facilitated by the new dry ice.
The progression of ice cream equipment for the home is interesting in itself, paralleling the growing spurt of new technology through Yankee ingenuity. To judge by Hannah Glasse’s English recipe, her equipment had consisted of two nested “basons,” the smaller, covered one for the cream, and the larger to hold both it and the ice. It was a system that required a good deal of shaking and stirring, and was probably similar to Washington’s gadget, a covered, bullet-shaped bomb of pewter set into a larger container of salt and ice, and also dependent on hand agitation.
It was only after the Civil War that geared mechanisms of the previous few decades were applied to home ice cream makers. A plethora of this equipment appeared on the market, inspired by Nancy Johnson’s first inventions in 1846. By the late nineteenth century, there were dozens of manufacturers using such names as Keystone, Packer’s, The Gem Freezer, The Blizzard Freezer, The American Twin Freezer, Shepard’s Lightning, The New Standard Twin Spiral Motion Freezer, The Ideal Combination Freezer and Churn, and more. In fact, at least fifty different models were offered to an enthusiastic market. Most were the familiar bucket model. A large wooden tub held a narrow tin cannister in which one placed the cream mix, a tight-fitting dasher and a cover, and then the ice and salt mixture was packed in the tub around it. Cranking the handle turned either the cannister or the dasher, depending on the model, scraped the forming ice cream from the cannister walls and mixed it around for even chilling and freezing.
There were other ways to apply the freezing principles to new designs, For example, in 1883 the Jack Frost Freezer Company of New York City reversed the usual process by packing the ice and salt mixture inside the cylinder, rather than outside. Its boxy wooden container also held an open deep tin pan for the cream mixture, and as the cylinder was hand-cranked it rotated within the tin and its mix. Presumably there was also a scraper to keep the outside of the cylinder free of a build-up frozen cream. Still another box model used the more common arrangement, the ice cream mixture being poured into a horizontal tin canister surrounded by the ice (possibly dry ice).. An open hopper permitted the steady introduction of cream mix into the stationery canister, and a large wooden screw, fairly tight-fitting inside the canister, was cranked to advance the ice cream mixture through it. By the time it had fallen out the far end and into a waiting receptacle it had been changed into its frozen state.
Regardless of the kind of machine, owning and using one was always a sign of status. Considered the mark of a special event, ice cream took center stage at fund-raisers, church picnics, and summer entertainments, and, of course, “ice cream socials.” From there it was only a step to individual pewter molds that were the highlight of both children’s birthday parties and adult gatherings. Gorgeously “painted” with colored ice creams, the figures were available in a variety of themes and delivered at the proper moment from commercial ice cream shops. They were chosen in advance, of course, taking great care to choose the right number of boys’ themes (soldiers, horses, patriotic figures) and girls’ (flowers, dolls, kittens), or large elaborate frozen floral arrangements for adults. Such extravagances were soon paralleled by more common Eskimo Pies and the Good Humor truck, pre-packaged ice cream for the masses in competition with the hand-dipped, presumably superior quality of early Howard Johnson and its extraordinary choice of flavors. Even my mother made “wholesome” ice cream in refrigerator trays, periodically removing them from the “fridge” to stir. You may remember the catch-phrase “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” but did you know that it was a popular Tin Pan Alley song, and that there was an “I Scream Bar?”
Today we succumb to the spell of new and elaborate gadgetry and gourmet cookery, and for enough money we may have access to ice cream makers that work electrically within a home freezer. No more hand-cranking—we are free to dream up an infinite number of flavor variations, perhaps a new one each day. But there are still those, I suspect, who will miss the taste of a bit of salted ice that has inadvertantly found its way into the tin cannister, or the entertaining stories of a group of young people churning in the shade, or the eagerly-awaited taste of the first peach ice cream of the season.
Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Her web site is www.aliceross.com
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