Unmelted Snow

An Investigation Into the Delicious Origins of Ice Cream

The average American will eat 50,000 calories worth of ice cream in 2014. But how did we get here? In honor of National Ice Cream month, a history of the frozen dessert.


Thirty years ago this week, Ronald Reagan made perhaps the most momentous decision of his presidency. "Ice cream is a nutritious and wholesome food," he declared on July 9, 1984. "It enjoys a reputation as the perfect dessert and snack."

Truer words were never spoken (except for maybe the whole "nutritious" thing). And so, with that, The Gipper officially transformed July from a nondescript span of 31 summertime days into the infinitely more delicious National Ice Cream Month.

Now here we are, three decades later. Ice cream is still perfect—and popular. The average American eats 48 pints (or nearly 50,000 calories worth) of the stuff each year—the most in the world. That adds up to annual tab of about $150.

But how did we get here? Where did ice cream even come from?

First things first: flavored ice is nothing new. The ancient Persians would collect snow from the mountaintops around Ecbatana or retrieve it from half-conical, half-subterranean storage spaces known as Yakhchal, then pour grape-juice concentrate over a bowl of the stuff and dig in. Later, around 400 BC, they invented faloodeh: rice water, vermicelli, and ice mixed with saffron and/or fruit. As Roman emperor (circa 60 AD) Nero allegedly ordered his slaves to sprint into the mountains and race back with as much unmelted snow as they could carry, which he then topped with fruit, kind of like we do at Pinkberry (only with less slavery). Legend has it that Alexander the Great enjoyed ancient sno-cones as well; his were flavored with honey and nectar.

But here's the thing: ice cream isn't just flavored ice. That's why it's called ice cream. So when did milk enter the picture?

As far as we know, the earliest frozen dairy treat was made in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). At some point, the Chinese likely figured out that by combining salt with ice you could lower the mixture's freezing point and actually freeze foods; they proceeded to pour this salty cocktail over containers filled with syrup, thereby inventing the first ice-cream maker (of sorts). Emperor Tang (618 - 697 AD) apparently employed 94 ice-men who would heat and ferment buffalo, cow, and goat milk, then thicken this "yogurt" with flour, add camphor for flavor, and "refrigerate" it before serving. Earlier Chinese and Arab innovators may have blended milk, ice, fruits, nuts, and/or rice at some point, but the records aren't reliable enough to say for sure.

What we can say for sure is that ice cream as we know it today didn't show up in the West until much, much later. The 1660s, to be exact. Some people will argue with this. They will say that Marco Polo stole an ice-cream making technique from the secretive Kublai Khan and brought it to Italy in the 13th century. They will say that when Catherine de' Medici married Henry II in 1533, she brought along a coterie of Italian chefs who introduced flavored ices (or sorbetti) to France. These stories probably aren't true—or at least they can't be verified.

We do know, however, that water ices began to appear during the early 1660s in Naples, Florence, Paris, and Spain, and that by 1664, ices made with sweetened milk had materialized in Naples. Over the next few years, the dish somehow made its way to Windsor Castle, where it showed up on the menu at a banquet for the Feast of St. George in 1671. Still, only the guests at King Charles II's table got to enjoy "one plate of white strawberries and one plate of iced cream"; the rest of the rabble were left to marvel, from a safe remove, at the rare and exotic dish.

(Some people believe that it was Charles II's father—or rather, Charles II's father's French or Italian chef—who brought ice cream to England. According to this story, Charles I either paid the guy a lifetime pension in return for keeping the recipe a secret or threatened him with death if he divulged it; then Charles was de-noggined in 1649 and the recipe began to spread. But alas—there's no historical evidence to support such a tale.)

Once Europe got its first taste of ice cream, world domination was pretty much inevitable. The next few centuries were all about popularization. Procopio Cutò, a Sicilian chef, may have become the first person to serve gelato directly to the public when he opened Cafe Procope in Paris in 1686. Recipes began to appear in cookbooks: Nicholas Lemery’s Recueil de curiositéz rares et nouvelles de plus admirables effets de la nature in 1674; Antonio Latini's Lo Scalco alla Moderna in 1694; Mrs. Mary Eales's Receipts—the first English version—in 1718.

Quaker colonists soon brought their recipes to America. The first newspaper ad for ice cream appeared in the 1770s. The first ice cream shop opened in Manhattan in 1777. George Washington paid almost $200—a ton of money at the time—for ice-cream equipment and recipes in 1790. Thomas Jefferson had his own personal recipe for vanilla ice cream, and in 1802 he became the first president to serve ice cream at the White House. James and Dolley Madison reportedly followed suit in 1813 at their Second Inaugural Ball. Americans were also the first to call ice cream "ice cream." Before that it was called "iced cream." How cumbersome.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Making ice cream was cumbersome, too, so for a long time only the elite could afford to eat it. But that changed in the 19th century, when two important developments helped make ice cream the ubiquitous snack it is today. The first was the hand-crank ice cream maker, invented in 1843 by American Nancy Johnson; 171 years later, we still use a mechanized version of Johnson's basic method. The second was mass refrigeration. In the 1850s, Carlo Gatti (a Swiss émigré) and Jacob Fussell (a Baltimore dairy magnate) popularized ice cream in London and the Eastern U.S. (respectively) by investing in ice on a massive scale. Gatti imported his from Norway; Fussell industrialized the process with plants in Baltimore, New York, Washington, and Boston. The real explosion, however, came with the rise of mechanical refrigeration using electricity and gas, which made it possible to transport and store ice cream. In 1899, the U.S. produced 5 million gallons of ice cream a year. By 1919 that number had skyrocketed to 150 million.

The cheaper refrigeration became, the bigger ice cream got. Innovators were quick to experiment with flavor and form.

The sundae was likely invented in the American Midwest in late 19th-century as a clever way to circumvent a ban instituted by local religious leaders on "sucking soda"; just put the syrup and the ice cream in a bowl, serve it on Sunday, and change the name to avoid any connection with the church.

The French claim to have come up with the concept of the edible cone in 1825, but the most credible source is probably England, where the mention of an ice-cream cone appeared in 1888 in Mrs. Marshall's Cookery Book. Here in America, Italian immigrant Italo Marciony probably deserves credit for the breakthrough; on September 22, 1896, he began to sell his ice cream in edible waffle cups from a pushcart on Wall Street in Manhattan. This was nearly a decade before several vendors introduced their own versions at the St. Louis World's Fair, the event that famously catapulted the cone into the national spotlight.

Before then, people simply licked their ice cream straight off tiny reusable glasses—which was somewhat unappetizing (not to mention unsanitary). So perhaps President Obama should consider amending his predecessor's Ice Cream Month declaration and setting aside July 9 as Italo Marciony Day. After all, without Mr. Marciony we might still be eating our ice cream with a soupcon of other people's spit.