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.
And then they Added 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 were 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”.
Then, jumping ahead to the 11th century CE, when Persians made something called sharbat or sharbabt in Arabic, which (as you may have guessed) is akin to modern sherbet. These were frozen drinks that combined flavorings like cherry or pomegranate, with sugar that was acquired during their trades with the Indian Empire. So, one could say that the first ice cream flavor was maybe pomegranate. This style was appropriated by European aristocracy shortly after, and became popular in Italy and France. In the 1600’s, an Italian man, Antony Latini, was credited with adding sugar to sherbet to create sorbetto. According to Avey, “He is also responsible for creating a milk-based sorbet, which most culinary historians consider the first official ice cream.”
Then Things Got Creamier: Gelato and "Fromage"
Throughout the late 1600’s, the Europeans continued to go wild with their ice cream developments. A Sicillian man named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, opened the first cafe in Paris. This became THE spot for the intellectual elite like Benjamin Franklin, Victor Hugo, and Napolean. Not to mention, the café introduced gelato to the French public, winning Procopio the title of “Father of Gelato”. Thanks to him, we can now picture Napoleon, Ben Franklin, and Victor Hugo engaging in deep, philosophical discussion while holding tiny cups of ice cream. Adorable.
Into the 1800’s, the French adapted these recipes using cheese molds to compress their flavored ice mixtures. Thus, creating an ice-cream-like dessert that was called “fromage”. Yes, that is confusing. No, we won’t dwell on it. Still, it is useful to consider all of these smaller-scale advancements as we try to chronologically pin down when ice cream was first invented–even though (spoiler) there’s not really one answer.
Ice Cream in the U.S.A
When was ice cream “invented” in the U.S.? More like, “when was ice cream introduced to the U.S.?”. When Europeans colonized the Americas, new ingredients and methodology started appearing in what would become the United States. In the 16th century, Spanish colonizers brought vanilla and chocolate from the Yucatan Peninsula. According to Reader’s Digest, sorbetto was introduced as well, as Naples was part of the Spanish Empire at the time. So while they weren’t the first ice cream flavors, chocolate and vanilla have been around for quite awhile.
By the 1700’s, ice cream was the hot–rather, cool–new trend. Confectionary books were being released left and right, and even George Washington was dropping major cash (apparently $200 at the first ice cream parlor) on ice cream. Even first lady Dolley Madison is credited with serving strawberry ice cream, and another first lady Mary Todd Lincoln for hosting seasonal “strawberry parties” (someone’s got to host one of these in the modern day), during which guests would eat strawberries alongside cake and ice cream. However, it was Thomas Jefferson’s fiending for ice cream that led to its broader popularization in the White House and beyond.
But like many great developments and inventions throughout history, greater progress in ice- cream-making was made by black individuals that have since been nearly written out of the record. Jefferson kept a staff of French or French-trained butlers and cooks, including chef Jef Hemings (who was still enslaved), chef Honoré Julien, and his French butler Adiren Petit–all of whom made that White House ice cream for Jefferson. Some years later, Augustus Jackson–a free black man who worked as a White House cook in the early-to-mid 1800’s–developed the modern method of adding salt to ice cream to keep it colder. In 1843, a black woman named Nancy Johnson changed the game when she patented a hand-crank ice cream machine. Without the great minds of black innovators, modern ice cream simply would not exist.
Sundaes, Ice Cream Sodas, and Flavors Galore
So now that we kind of know when ice cream was invented, how about all of the ice cream creations we know and love? Well, in 1869 a cocktail recipe book outlined a drink called “ice cream soda water” that featured homemade shaved ice, raspberry syrup, heavy cream, and soda water. This was actually a bit like sharbat, and a little like an ice cream float. Milkshakes as we know them today were invented in the early 1900’s that used chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla syrups. Pretty straightforward.
The origins of the ice cream sundae are disputed in a 3-town game of “who dunnit?”--sans murder. Evanston, IL, Ithaca, NY and Two Rivers, WI all claim to be the home of the sundae. In 1882, customers at a soda fountain/ice cream parlor in Two Rivers asked for chocolate syrup (which was usually reserved for soda) on their ice cream. In 1890, a soda fountain in Evanston started serving ice cream with soda syrup when a religious town banned the sale of soda on Sundays. Thus, the retailer started calling the creation “sundae”. However, one Sunday around the same time, a drugstore in Ithaca served the town reverend some ice cream with a cherry on top. Deeming this creation a “Cherry Sunday.” There’s minimal evidence to concretely declare a “first” sundae-maker, but we’re certainly grateful for all three.
When was the Ice Cream Cone Invented
Somehow, this is ALSO a mystery. The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) posits pretty certainly that an Italian immigrant, Italo Marchiony, patented the ice cream cone in 1903. But, this was more of a biscuit-like cup, rather than a rolled up cone shape. Photographs taken at the 1904 World’s Fair show a family holding actual cones. From this and other sources, we’re pointed to theory number two: a Syrian man named Ernest Hamwi, supposedly made a similar discovery to Marchiony when he repurposed his zalabis (a waffle-like pastry) into cones to help a nearby ice cream vendor who ran out of bowls. Unfortunately, there is insufficient evidence to confirm who did it first, or if Hamwi’s cones are what is pictured in the World’s Fair photos. Meanwhile, some historians credit Agnes B. Marshall who, in 1887, published a cookbook that contains a recipe for “Cornetts with Cream”.
So...when was ice cream invented?
Short answer: the original ice cream blueprints were invented back in the BCE’s, and modern ice cream was really perfected in the 1700’s into the 1800’s. And we’re still innovating to this day! From artisanal ice cream shops in major cities, to 3-step simple ice cream mixes like Hijinx that only require a blender to make homemade ice cream, the ice cream world is growing and changing by the day. And it’s never been easier to make your own custom flavors! You can even recreate some of the OG flavors like cherry, honey, or–you know–buffalo milk, at home, with just a blender.
What are your ice cream thoughts, stories, and conspiracy theories? Let us know!