As with most “firsts” in American food history, myths and misinformation surround certain key points in the evolution of American ice cream. A number of recipes for chilled egg custards were known in the early American colonies, but ice cream as we know it today has been a product of continual evolution of both taste and technology.
Dolley Madison (1768-1849), wife of fourth US president James Madison, has often been called the “inventor” of American ice cream. Though this is doubtful, no one denies that this popular Washington hostess helped greatly to popularize the delight.
Another American woman, Nancy Johnson, did in fact invent and patent the first hand-cranked ice cream maker in 1847. Within a few years, entrepreneurs were perfecting her machine and turning out ice cream on a larger scale. Because of lack of refrigeration, however, it was still a rare treat.
The origin of the ice cream “sundae” has never been exactly clear. Apparently someone in a Midwestern city (either Evanston, Illinois and Two Rivers, Wisconsin) thought to cover ice cream with syrup as a means of circumventing strict religious-based rules against soda drinking (then considered a social evil). The concoction was called a “Sunday” after the day it was invented; the spelling was altered to avoid reference to the Christian Sabbath. The sundae may well have completely different origins; it is incredible to think it took so long for someone to think of putting a topping on ice cream.
American ice cream vendors probably thought to serve ice cream in edible holders, like waffles, before the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair—a New York vendor even received a patent for the process some years before the exhibition—nevertheless, ice cream cones were sold at the fair and became instantly popular throughout the country as a result of it. (The hamburger sandwich, while invented years before, is another iconic American dish the fair helped popularize.) In America today, a highly aerated, delicate and almost flavorless cone with a square bottom is often used as a vehicle for soft ice cream, while a thicker, sturdier, truly conical “sugar cone” is associated with hard ice cream. Gourmet ice cream is sometimes served in even thicker waffle-like cones.
Only during the twentieth century, with advances in refrigeration and refrigerated transport, did ice cream and similar iced desserts become popular throughout the United States. One of the first national chains known for ice cream were the Howard Johnson restaurants, founded in 1925, and famous for their trademarked “28 flavors.” Baskin-Robbins, founded in California in 1945, serves a consistent “31 flavors” at any one time, though it has developed and served thousands; it now operates or licenses over 2,800 locations in the United States and as many elsewhere in the world. In the 1920s, both the Good Humor and Eskimo Pie chocolate-covered ice cream bars were invented. The ice cream sandwich and soft ice cream (associated with the Dairy Queen chain) also became popular. Ice cream parlors, stands, carts, and trucks offered the product in dozens of varieties throughout the country; mass marketers brought it into every food market freezer case.
With all ice cream varieties, and in all eras, despite the advent of hundreds of ever-changing flavor offerings, vanilla has always been the most popular variety in the United States; chocolate and strawberry come next as basic flavors. Vanilla serves well as a basis for the ice cream sandwich, the ice cream soda and the ice cream sundae. The sundae can be as simple as a scoop of vanilla with some syrup, chopped nuts or sprinkles, as complicated as a banana split: banana slices covered with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream, whipped cream, various syrups, and a maraschino cherry. In a metaphoric sense, the term “plain vanilla” refers to anything that is common, simple, standard, widely known or sometimes unadventurous or unexciting.
The trend that most affects today’s ice cream in America began when Reuben Mattus created the Häagen-Dazs brand of “super-premium” ice cream in 1960. Over the next several decades, especially with the advent of the enormously popular Ben & Jerry’s brand (started in Burlington, Vermont in 1978), ice cream became a true gourmet item. Other gourmet brands followed these two trailblazers into ice cream stores and markets around the country. What the super-premium marketers were doing was simply bringing back ice cream to its original roots: thick, rich, and made with natural ingredients.
In America today as a result of these trends, “hard” ice cream is either available in a premium, high fat version with all or mostly natural ingredients, or in a more mass-produced, heavily aerated version that uses artificial stabilizers, gums and emulsifiers, artificial flavors, and corn sweeteners rather than expensive cane sugar. The irony, of course, is that the expensive ice creams have twice the fat as the everyday varieties; they are nevertheless advertised as “natural” and “wholesome” and associated in advertising with green fields, contented cows, and an idyllic rustic existence.
A recent trend among several chain and many independent ice cream retailers is called “marble slab ice cream.” In as theatrical a manner as possible, the counter person works on a marble slab to incorporate the buyer’s chosen ingredients (cookies or candies for example) into one or more varieties of ice cream or sorbet. Combinations are unlimited. The leading chain, Cold Stone Creamery, “auditions” rather than interviews its prospective servers.
Custard is a rich egg-based frozen dessert with a long history; though traditional American neighborhood custard stands are now a rarity, the ones that survive do a brisk, often nostalgia-based business. In many American cities, Italian gelato, based on both milk and eggs, is available in fruit and other flavors. Frozen yogurt has recently become popular as a “light” alternative to ice cream. Sorbets and sherbets (the word is frequently mispronounced “sherbert”) are frozen fruit-juice based desserts that either have no milk fat (in the case of sorbet) or less milk fat (in the case of sherbet) than true ice cream. Popular especially in summer, and sometimes made at home, ice pops are essentially frozen fruit-flavored ice on a stick; the Popsicle brand, with its related Creamsicle (which has an ice cream center) is by far the best known.
A summer treat in many American cities is “Italian ice” (in New York) or “water ice” (in Philadelphia), a kind of smooth granita made from fruit-flavored water that is frozen and then shaved and served in a small paper cup. “Snow cones,” popular at fairs and amusement parks and served from simple street carts in cities, have a rougher texture; they are created by dripping fruit-flavored syrup onto shaved ice.