In the Persian Empire, people would pour grape-juice concentrate over snow, in a bowl, and eat this as a treat, especially when the weather was hot. Snow would either be saved in the cool-keeping underground chambers known as “yakhchal“, or taken from snowfall that remained at the top of mountains by the summer capital — Hagmatana, Ecbatana or Hamedan of today. In 400 BC, the Persians went further and invented a special chilled food, made of rose water and vermicelli, which was served to royalty during summers. The ice was mixed with saffron, fruits, and various other flavours.
Ancient civilizations have served ice for cold foods for thousands of years. The BBC reports that a frozen mixture of milk and rice was used in China around 200 BC. The Roman Emperor Nero (37–68) had ice brought from the mountains and combined it with fruit toppings. These were some early chilled delicacies.
Arabs were perhaps the first to use milk as a major ingredient in the production of ice cream. They sweetened it with sugar rather than fruit juices, and perfected means of commercial production. As early as the 10th century, ice cream was widespread among many of the Arab world’s major cities, including Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo. It was produced from milk or cream, often with some yogurt, and was flavoured with rosewater, dried fruits and nuts. It is believed that the recipe was based on older Ancient Arabian recipes, which were, it is presumed, the first and precursors to Persian faloodeh.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat asserts, in her History of Food, that “the Chinese may be credited with inventing a device to make sorbets and ice cream. They poured a mixture of snow and saltpetre over the exteriors of containers filled with syrup, for, in the same way as salt raises the boiling-point of water, it lowers the freezing-point to below zero.” Some distorted accounts claim that in the age of Emperor Yingzong, Song Dynasty (960-1279) of China, a poem named Ode to the ice cheese (詠冰酪) was written by the poet Yang Wanli. Actually, this poem was named Ode to the pastry (詠酥; 酥 is a kind of food much like pastry in the Western world) and has nothing to do with ice cream. It has also been claimed that, in the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan enjoyed ice cream and kept it a royal secret until Marco Polo visited China and took the technique of making ice cream to Italy.
When Italian duchess Catherine de’ Medici married the Duke of Orléans (Henry II of France) in 1533, she is said to have brought with her to France some Italian chefs who had recipes for flavoured ices or sorbets. One hundred years later, Charles I of England was, it was reported, so impressed by the “frozen snow” that he offered his own ice cream maker a lifetime pension in return for keeping the formula secret, so that ice cream could be a royal prerogative. There is no historical evidence to support these legends, which first appeared during the 19th century.
The first recipe in French for flavoured ices appears in 1674, in Nicholas Lemery’s Recueil de curiositéz rares et nouvelles de plus admirables effets de la nature. Recipes for sorbetti saw publication in the 1694 edition of Antonio Latini’s Lo Scalco alla Moderna (The Modern Steward). Recipes for flavoured ices begin to appear in François Massialot’s Nouvelle Instruction pour les Confitures, les Liqueurs, et les Fruits, starting with the 1692 edition. Massialot’s recipes result in a coarse, pebbly texture. Latini claims that the results of his recipes should have the fine consistency of sugar and snow.
The earliest reference to ice cream given by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1744, reprinted in a magazine in 1877. 1744 in Pennsylvania Mag. Hist. & Biogr. (1877) I. 126 Among the rarities..was some fine ice cream, which, with the strawberries and milk, eat most deliciously.
The 1751 edition of The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse features a recipe for ice cream. OED gives her recipe: H. GLASSE Art of Cookery (ed. 4) 333 (heading) To make Ice Cream..set it [sc. the cream] into the larger Bason. Fill it with Ice, and a Handful of Salt.
The year 1768 saw the publication of L’Art de Bien Faire les Glaces d’Office by M. Emy, a cookbook devoted entirely to recipes for flavoured ices and ice cream.
Ice cream was introduced to the United States by Quaker colonists who brought their ice cream recipes with them. Confectioners sold ice cream at their shops in New York and other cities during the colonial era. Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson were known to have regularly eaten and served ice cream. First Lady Dolley Madison is also closely associated with the early history of ice cream in the United States. One respected history of ice cream states that, as the wife of U.S. President James Madison, she served ice cream at her husband’s Inaugural Ball in 1813.
Around 1832, Augustus Jackson, an African American confectioner, not only created multiple ice cream recipes but also invented a superior technique to manufacture ice cream.
In 1843, Nancy Johnson of Philadelphia was issued the first U.S. patent for a small-scale handcranked ice cream freezer. The invention of the ice cream soda gave Americans a new treat, adding to ice cream’s popularity. The invention of this cold treat is attributed to Robert Green in 1874, although there is no conclusive evidence to prove his claim.
The ice cream sundae originated in the late 19th century. Several men claimed to have created the first sundae, but there is no conclusive evidence to support any of their stories. Some sources say that the sundae was invented to circumvent blue laws, which forbade serving sodas on Sunday. Towns claiming to be the birthplace of the sundae include Buffalo, Two Rivers, Ithaca, and Evanston. Both the ice cream cone and banana split became popular in the early 20th century. Several food vendors claimed to have invented the ice cream cone at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, MO, USA. Europeans were eating cones long before 1904.
In the UK, ice cream remained an expensive and rare treat, until large quantities of ice began to be imported from Norway and the US in the mid-Victorian era. A Swiss–Italian businessman, Carlo Gatti, opened the first ice cream stall outside Charing Cross station in 1851, selling scoops of ice cream in shells for one penny.
The history of ice cream in the 20th century is one of great change and increases in availability and popularity. In the United States in the early 20th century, the ice cream soda was a popular treat at the soda shop, the soda fountain, and the ice cream parlor. During American Prohibition, the soda fountain to some extent replaced the outlawed alcohol establishments such as bars and saloons.
Ice cream became popular throughout the world in the second half of the 20th century after cheap refrigeration became common. There was an explosion of ice cream stores and of flavours and types. Vendors often competed on the basis of variety. Howard Johnson’s restaurants advertised “a world of 28 flavors”. Baskin-Robbins made its 31 flavours (“one for every day of the month”) the cornerstone of its marketing strategy. The company now boasts that it has developed over 1000 varieties.
One important development in the 20th century was the introduction of soft ice cream, which has more air mixed in thereby reducing costs. It made possible the soft ice cream machine in which a cone is filled beneath a spigot on order. In the United States, Dairy Queen, Carvel, and Tastee-Freez pioneered in establishing chains of soft-serve ice cream outlets.
Technological innovations such as these have introduced various food additives into ice cream, the notable one being the stabilizing agent gluten, to which some people have an intolerance. Recent awareness of this issue has prompted a number of manufacturers to start producing gluten-free ice cream.