The fascinating and Unbelievable History of Ice Cream
Take a guess: when was ice cream invented? Early in American history, around the 1770s? Or during World War II? Was the first ice cream flavor called something like “Patriotic Passionfruit”? - Not quite. In fact, ice cream wasn’t founded by Americans at all.
If you were to ask about the first ice cream flavor ever created, you might receive several variations of the founding story. That’s because the history of ice cream spans thousands of years and miles, with origin stories across the globe. Various cultures have been experimenting with ice cream ingredients and flavors for–give or take–almost two thousand years. From the lap of ancient Greece to George Washington’s ice box, ice cream has been reinventing itself around the world for thousands of years.
According to Tori Avey, a food expert and writer, ice cream-adjacent desserts extend all the way back to the bible. It’s said that King Solomon enjoyed drinks during the harvesting season. These were cool ice drinks that satiated the pallet during those hot harvest days.
She goes on to note that even the leaders of the ancient world liked their lil’ frozen treats. Greece’s Alexander the Great, for example, treated himself to ice drinks flavored with wine (uh, wine ice cream - yes, please!) or honey.
Even Rome’s infamous Nero commissioned “ice houses” (AKA pits covered with straw) as early as 54 BC, as an alternative refrigeration practice that–according to Reader’s Digest– was truly originated by the Persians in 400 BCE in the form of a yakhchal, a pyramid-like structure that used insulation and evaporation to cool the interior.
A touch of Sugar and Milk: Early AD Ice Cream
At this point, you might be like, “okayyyy, still not quite ice cream.” If you want to talk about who invented the first ice cream that’s closer to our modern idea of ice cream, it’s useful to think about who was the first to use common, present-day ingredients.
In 200 BCE China, people were reported to have created combinations of milk, rice, and snow. Later on, the Tang Dynasty emperors (618-907 AD) utilized milk to create a “frozen, milk-like confection” according to Avey. The milk was typically cow, goat, or buffalo that was heated with flour and combined with camphor, a tree-harvested substance that added texture and flavor. In this case, one could say that the first ice cream flavor was…”Buffalo Milk & Tree”.