The long, strange tale of ice cream in America

Photo via Getty Images/Rodrigo Bark.

The long, strange tale of ice cream in America

History + Culture

The long, strange tale of ice cream in America

Scroll through the #icecream hashtag on Instagram and it won’t take long for you to come across gold-foil covered vanilla swirls, matcha green tea waffle sundaes and mugs piled high with triple scoops topped with everything from brownies to cotton candy. You’ll probably even see a girl floating in a bed of sprinkles. Seriously.

The days when the option of 31 flavors seemed exciting are long in the past. But before we were clamoring for tickets to the made-for-Instagram Museum of Ice Cream pop-up or holding dripping cones out in front of us for our followers to salivate over, ice cream was just something to enjoy for its sweet, creamy perfection, and nothing more.

The history of America’s favorite dessert is anything but vanilla. The frozen treat’s tantalizing past is is colored with tales of royal elites, Founding Fathers and religious persecution.

Ice cream’s origins

The first record of something that resembles today’s ice cream dates back to 7th century A.D. China, when King Tang of Shang enjoyed a mix of buffalo milk, ice and camphor. But it was British confectioner Philip Lenzi who introduced ice cream to America. In 1774, Lenzi put an ad in the New York Gazette announcing that he would make ice cream available to the masses. It didn’t it take long to sweep the (soon-to-be) nation. 

Presidential love

The Founding Fathers were as crazy about the new sensation as anyone else, using elaborate ice-cream making methods and sparing no expense when it came to satisfying their sweet-tooth cravings.

George Washington procured fancy equipment including 36 “ice pots” – small cups used for holding what was, back then, more liquidy than today’s ice cream – for his Mount Vernon estate, and reportedly spent $200 (the equivalent of $5,000 today) on ice cream in a single summer. Thomas Jefferson is said to have had an 18-step recipe which included churning egg yolks, sugar and cream by hand.

Think wild flavors like wasabi pea dust and lobster ice cream are the invention of hipsters? Think again. First lady Dolley Madison was a fan of extreme flavors like oyster and foie gras, and delighted guests at President James Madison’s second inaugural ball when she served strawberry ice cream.

Ice cream parlors and soda fountains

The discovery of refrigeration revolutionized the way ice cream was manufactured. In 1843, New Jersey native Nancy Johnson invented the hand-cranked freezer which stirred an ice cream mix with salt and ice until the mix was frozen.

By the mid-19th century, ice cream was widely available to the general public with ice cream parlors popping up all over the country. Ice cream sodas soon became a favorite, which eventually made way for ice cream sundaes.

There are several competing stories regarding the origin of the sundae, the most entertaining of which has controversial origins. In 1890, Evanston, Illinois passed a blue law banning ice cream sodas on Sundays, because they were too, um, ‘sinfully’ rich to be consumed on the Sabbath. So some clever merchant reinvented the dessert keeping the syrup but leaving out the carbonated water in order to subvert the law, and incidentally create the “Sunday.”

Ice cream even played a big part in wartime efforts during the 20th century, when Americans considered it paramount to provide World War II soldiers with every possible comfort that could be spared, including eating ice cream a minimum of three times a week. When the Japanese shot down the U.S.S. Lexington in 1942, the crew broke into the ship’s freezer and ate all the ice cream before abandoning the ship, even scooping ice cream into their helmets.  

Old-fashioned diner-style ice cream parlors outfitted with jukeboxes and soda fountain machines, all the rage through the 1950s, slowly disappeared, but confectioners continued to experiment over the years, creating newer and more innovative flavors.

Instagram-worthy creations

That brings us to the frozen landscape of today, replete with out-there flavors and seemingly made-for-Instagram aesthetics. 

David Chan, co-owner of Wowfulls, a New York shop that serves ice cream in Hong Kong-style egg waffles said that this trend, at least in part, is being propelled by the increasing number of young immigrant and first-generation Asian Americans in the U.S.

The emergence of frozen Asian desserts and ice cream concoctions are popping up all over the U.S. Thai ice cream rolls, fish-shaped cones, bubble tea floats, soft-serve topped with sculpted, rainbow-colored toppings and swirls of cotton candy have sparked a new craze for the biggest, most colorful and unique versions of this classic treat. 

Chan, alongside co-owners Peter Li and Yiming Hui, said that he wanted to recreate the egg waffles that can be found on the streets of Hong Kong, where street vendors will sell them for $2 a bag. Their Manhattan shop serves colorful flavors like pop rocks, cotton candy and pumpkin spice topped with elaborate offerings.

“These desserts aren’t new,” Chan explained. “They’ve been made for a long time in China, Thailand and Taiwan. We’re seeing this young generation of Asian Americans becoming entrepreneurs, and dessert is how they want to target people.”

And the rest of us are happy to help spread the gospel through our social media feeds. 

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