Monday, August 20, 2012

The Emperors Of Ice Cream

One of the most profound things I've ever seen took place on a guided tour of Queensland.  In amongst the usual touristic sights of natural beauty--the LOTR-worthy lakes, the picture-book rain forests, and the prehistoric cassowaries--we stopped to get ice cream.

One of my fellow tourists was a young woman toting a squint-faced newborn.  The new mother scooped some ice cream up in one of those diminutive plastic ice cream shovels, then held it out to the child.

The baby's lips puckered.  She blinked.  Once the ice cream was on her lips, there was a moment of tension.

"This is her first ice cream," mom drawled.

The baby's eyes grew as large as baby eyes can go.  She laughed.  She reached out before.  This new stuff--it was good!  This new stuff--it was more than good!  It was fantastic!

I felt lucky to watch this--a person realizing that existance is awesome enough to include ice cream.

On the face of it, ice cream seems like it must go hand-in-hand with the glories of electric refrigeration.   Human beings are a crafty bunch however, and our sweaty summers have been relieved by ice-cooled treats for at least four millennia.

The Chinese--first at everything--produced the earliest recorded ice confection, made by taking milk, overcooked rice, and spices, and throwing the mix all together with some fresh snow.  Yum!

The Chinese practice of mixing snow with sweets passed along to the Persians, who add fruit juice to snow to refresh themselves during the summer.  This is the origin of the word sherbet--a Persian word meaning 'he drank.'  From here, the technology passed on to Alexander the Great who--in addition to his usual claim to fame of having one of the largest land Empires ever, must add 'bringer of iced delicacies to Europe.'  Alexander's gift to the western world shows up again in the reign of the maligned Emperor Nero, whose bacchanals often were accompanied by refreshing mixtures of fruit juice and snow.

But where did the snow come from in the summer?  The mountains.  In Rome's case, the ice came from the alps.  Back in the ancient world, there existed an ice trade.  Entrepreneurial mountain-dwellers would collect snow or lake ice, cover it with a thick sheet, then transport it to the the sweltering metropole for the refreshment of the pest-ridden city-dwellers. The ice was stored in icehouses--insulated sometimes underground storage rooms, in which a cache of ice could remain frozen even in the hottest month of summer.  The first recorded building of an ice house goes all the way back to 1700 BC, when the snow-loving Persians constructed one 'which never before had any king built.'

The Turkish Sultan so loved ice that they had an entire class of servant dedicated to the upkeep of the ice and snow stores.  (This was just some of the 1570 people who as of the 16th century were employed in the Sultan's kitchens, others including the oh-so-necessary yogurt makers, simit bakers, and wheat pounders.)

Simits, though not involving ice or ice cream in any way, remain food fit for a Sultan.
The Chinese came up with a further ice confection improvement around the 17th Century.  Salt.  You may remember making 'home made' ice cream back in school, and, because of the infinite cruelty of the education system, this somehow involving turning a crank.  You also for some reason needed salt.  No one could tell me why this was so.
Notice the hand-crank of cruelty.
Adding salt to ice reduces the freezing point of water.  Immersing a thing into this super-cooled brine allows for the freezing of more than just ice--now people could freeze ice or custard.  Sometime in the 18th Century a Sicilian Procopio Cuto at the Parisian Cafe Procope made some of the first for-sure European ice cream available to non-royalty.  (Cafe Procope is named after the Byzantine historian Procopious, he of the Secret History fame.)

Ice cream was an ever-popular dish for the illustrious rich.  George Washington spent over two hundred dollars on ice cream one summer.  Thomas Jefferson was such a fan of ice cream that, in very Jeffersonian fashion, he laid out an 18-step process on how to make the perfect ice cream.  Supposedly it tastes a little bit like a baked alaska.
Ice cream recipe written in the same hand as the Declaration of Independence.

It took until the middle of the Nineteenth Century for ice cream to reach the common people.  Then, a Baltimore man named Jacob Fussel, a dairy merchant, needed a way to get people to buy cream.  He started the world's first ice cream factory, became rich by selling affordable cream, and gave middle class America a taste for what Wallace Stevens called 'concupiscent curds.'  A devout Quaker, Fussel took time out of being an ice cream impresario by also supporting the underground railroad.

Ice cream is one of those parts of human life so unabashedly wonderful, so flawless, so pure, that it is certain to accompany human culture to the very twilight.  Indeed, in that last age, when man crouches in some burnt-out wasteland, if he still has culture, he will sometimes wipe the sweat off his brow and get a double scoop of chocolate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It has been my opinion for some time that ice cream is the worlds most perfect food. It ranks at the top for flavor, for all food groups (if there still are food groups) it can be included in all of them, it has everything a body needs to survive happily. It can bring a smile to any face at any time. It is yum!