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National Ice Cream Month

History's Garden

GE Monitor-Top Refrigerator introduced in 1927 from Wikimedia commons.

I'm so excited to have an entire month to celebrate one of my favorite desserts – ice cream! On July 9, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation establishing the month of July as National Ice Cream Month, and the third Sunday in July (the 21st this year) as National Ice Cream Day.

I have no idea why we need a special day when we have the whole month, but I'll take it!

Today's modern ice cream treat started out some 2,000 years ago as a simple icy drink. Alexander the Great (256 BC – 323 BC) used nectar and honey to flavor snow, and Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC) added fruit and juices to snow brought down from the Apennine mountains. It was an indulgence for royalty and the rich. In the 1500-1600s, sugar was added and these ice drinks evolved into what we now call sorbet, which was wildly popular with European aristocrats. The next advancement was the addition of milk, and sherbet (not sherbert) was invented. It wasn't long before the Italians added cream and extra sugar to the sherbet, and gelato was born. Gelato is very similar to modern American ice cream, and indeed, the word gelato actually means ice cream in Italian.

The first known mention of ice cream in the United States was in 1744, when the governor of Maryland served it to guests at a May dinner. One of the guests, William Black, wrote in a letter that survives today, "a dessert no less curious: among the rarities of which it was compos'd, was some fine ice cream which, with the strawberries and milk, eat most deliciously."

Between 1801 and 1809, Thomas Jefferson served ice cream several times at the President's House (the White House). The Library of Congress has a recipe for ice cream written in Jefferson's hand.

But, without modern refrigeration and electricity, how did they actually make ice cream back then? Firstly, you had to have an ice house, which was a well-insulated underground room/cellar that stayed cool during the summer. In the winter, you would harvest (or purchase) large blocks of river ice and store them in the ice house under burlap sacks and straw. To make ice cream, you'd mix up your base of milk, eggs, sugar, etc. and pour it into a metal container that you sealed with butter. Then you'd chop up an ice block into small chunks, mix the chunks with salt and pack them around the metal container. After a couple hours, you'd have a solid block of ice cream. The more ambitious ice cream makers would open the metal can every 15-20 minutes and scrape the crystals off the inside of the can, which greatly improved the ice cream texture.

In 1843, Nancy M. Johnson patented the first hand-crank ice cream maker. This was quite the innovation because her "Artificial Freezer" included a dasher to churn the ice cream inside the metal freezing container. No more hand scraping of ice crystals and a much creamier product.

In the mid-1850s people would go to the local drugstore to get a soda drink to cure whatever ailed them. These soda drinks included cocaine or caffeine which were considered proper medications for headaches and other issues, and were completely legal. In 1874, a Philadelphia druggist created the first ice cream soda. Birth of the ice cream "sunday" followed shortly thereafter. There is conflicting information surrounding the creation and name of the "sunday." Apparently, there were laws that prevented the drinking of soda on Sunday (the sabbath) because it was too decadent. So, the soda-less "sunday" (ice cream in a bowl with chocolate sauce on top) was created and served after church services. At some point the name was changed to sundae and people started eating them any day of the week. (A point of interest: in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Narcotics Tax Act which banned the use of cocaine and opiates in over-the-counter products.)

Public Domain.

Ice Cream maker patent.

According to the International Dairy Foods Association, waffle cones debuted at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair when an ice cream vendor ran out of serving cups. A nearby vendor selling salabis, a Syrian waffle-like cookie, came to the rescue. Ernest Hamwi rolled one of his cookies into a cone shape and voila waffle cones!

The rise of modern mechanical refrigeration in the early 1900s revolutionized the ice cream business. Not only was it possible for large scale manufacturing and storage, but now individual consumers could store it at home.

By 1929, Americans were eating nine quarts of ice cream every year and it was considered by most to be the ultimate comfort food. The rocky years of the Great Depression (1929-1939) led to the creation of Rocky Road ice cream, which was marketed by both William Dreyer and Joseph Edy as a reminder that life could still be sweet amid broken and rocky pieces.

During World War II, the Navy recognized the importance of ice cream as a comfort food and morale booster. They spent $1 million to acquire and retrofit a barge to become a floating ice cream factory and parlor. The barge was sent to the Western Pacific where it became a favorite of the sailors, producing 10 gallons of ice cream every seven minutes.

Ice cream remains one of the most popular desserts in America today with each person consuming about 5 gallons per year. Vanilla is still considered the most popular flavor, but nowadays, the sky's the limit. According to Taste of Home magazine, some of the more weird ice cream flavors include Garlic, Cheetos Flamin' Hot, Dill Pickle and Sweet Avocado Cayenne. I'm not that adventurous. My favorites include Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Moose Tracks and Dulce de Leche. What about you?