A Brief History of Ice Cream

Ice cream has been on the world’s menu in one form or another for almost 2,500 years. It would have been enjoyed even earlier if one important ingredient was easier to come by.

That would be ice. Ancient Romans had to send swift runners up into the Apennines to fetch snow and ice for the dessert that crowned their feasts.

In the second century A.D., Persians were freezing water overnight in the desert and running the ice back into their downtown ice cream parlors at dawn.

One would think the Eskimos, with their year-round ready supply of ice, would have led the way, but then there were less added ingredients available that far north. A walrus-flavored sundae doesn’t sound inviting.

Marco Polo is credited with bringing the ice cream recipe to Italy on his return from the Orient around 1300 A.D., perhaps from the kitchens of the Kublai Khan. Marco had scooped all the European chefs, but he didn’t have a copyright, so the frozen delicacy was soon on nearly every menu in the continent.

By around 1600 A.D. someone, perhaps an ice cream chef, found that adding salt to the surrounding ice, speeded up the process of freezing the ingredients and it became easier to create ice cream faster than it was being consumed. Well, almost.

Around then, some chefs were turning out a more sumptuous tutti-frutti than the others. That was probably the case in the court of King Charles I of England. Legend has it that Charles tried to surpress the “Royal Snow” recipe to limit its availability to his court and the peerage.

Charles I was beheaded in 1649, but that was more likely due to his lost battles with Oliver Cromwell than his efforts to deprive his subjects of the wonderful frozen dessert.

His son, Charles II, is mentioned in the Ice Cream Annals as an enthusiastic lover of the creamy dish. It graced the menu of his 1671 Feast of Saint George Dinner at Windsor Castle.

Government records indicate President George Washington spent $200 on ice cream in the summer of 1790. The purchasing power of that $200 would be more than $6,000 today. Of course Washington was dishing out most of those scoops to the many guests at his Presidential dinners.

I estimate I spent about $150 on ice cream during all four seasons of 1959. The present day purchasing power of that sum would be about $1,500 now. It was worth every penny.

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