In Ice Cream: A Global History (Reaktion Books, UK, $15.95), Laura Weiss paints a compelling portrait of everyone’s favorite dessert. She traces the transition of ice cream from a luxury reserved for the wealthy to an everyday treat accessible to the masses, while never allowing history to obscure a sense of pure pleasure.
According to Weiss, ice cream was likely invented toward the end of the 17th century by Antonio Latini, the chef for a Spanish viceroy in Naples, who concocted a recipe for “milk sorbet.” It was most certainly served at the first Parisian café, Il Procope, founded in 1686. For many years, it was reserved for the tables of the rich. Sugar was prohibitively expensive, and refrigeration was nonexistent—only royalty could afford the brick-lined ice pits that allowed their chefs to make frozen desserts.
It was in America, however, where ice cream became a democratic indulgence. Nancy Johnson received a patent for a mechanical ice cream maker in 1843, paving the way for mass production; Jacob Fussel of Baltimore founded his first ice cream factory in 1851, and before long had locations throughout the Northeast. By the beginning of the 20th century ice cream vendors wandered the streets of major cities, and soda fountains had become staples of the culture. American ice cream might lack the richness of texture found in Italian gelato, but it had become available to the average person.
The Golden Age of the soda fountain probably coincided with Prohibition during the 1920s. By the time of Repeal, ice cream was firmly entrenched in the American culture—sold in grocery stores and restaurants, and consumed at home as well as at the drugstore. Portability arrived in the form of the cone and the sandwich, which allowed ice cream to become more mobile than ever, and mobility became complete with the invention of the Good Humor truck. Ironically, ice cream production has recently come full circle, with many consumers turning to expensive, small-batch brands such as Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s.
Ice Cream: A Global History is an interesting and delightful book, particularly when accompanied by a bowl of your favorite dessert.