People love ice cream, but the truth is, we don't know much about it other than we like it in bowls, cones and piled high with whipped cream, nuts and fudge in a sundae.
Though long associated with the United States and Italy, its roots run deep to China, which is said to be the first place a dairy-laden frozen dessert was perfected. That's interesting to note because it's thought that about 90 percent of the Chinese population is now lactose intolerant.
And there is more:
• While ice cream today has some negative health associations (obesity and diabetes), it was originally touted as a healthy component to a daily diet. What could be more wholesome than whole milk?
• Think hand-cranked ice cream is arduous to make? Before that contraption was invented, the ingredients were put into a closed pot and shaken until they became solid. Talk about exhausting.
• What we today consider an everyman treat was once reserved for the wealthy. That's who could afford the pastry chefs to prepare the ice cream for them.
These ice cream tidbits and more have been collected by Laura B. Weiss in Ice Cream: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2011), a slim volume that puts the popular frozen dessert under the microscope. It's probably not quite accurate to call it a dessert, because it's a sweet treat that's eaten morning, noon and night, not just after a meal. Weiss will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg on Thursday for a booksigning. Ice Cream is part of the Edible Series, which also includes books on cake, curry, hambugers, pancakes, sandwiches and tea, among several others from the British publisher. (Read more about the series at reaktionbooks.uk.co.)
In two years of research, Weiss was able to trace the development of ice cream from its Asian roots to its European evolution and on to its status as an American icon. In a phone interview from New York last week, Weiss talked about what most surprised her about the history of ice cream.
She said she was struck to learn about the "underbelly" of something we think of as pure pleasure. Many people died after eating ice cream from tainted cones in the early 1900s. And others became sick eating ice cream bought from street vendors around the same time. Some of the food safety regulations of today weren't in place yet.
While ice cream may not come to mind when we think of lucrative ventures, it turned out it was "no different than coal or steel" as a way for people to make money when mechanical ice cream makers were developed in the mid 1800s, she said. The big innovators may not have done quite as well at the industrialist Carnegie family, "but they did get rich," Weiss said.
Howard Johnson, the hotel and restaurant magnate, is one of those men who got rich but Weiss doesn't think he gets the credit he deserves in the evolution of ice cream.
"He was the one who pushed there could be more flavors than vanilla and chocolate," she said. And those Vermont hippies Ben (Cohen) and Jerry (Greenfield)? They turned their convictions and funky flavors into an empire, but they also were the first to up the ante on mix-ins. Chocolate-covered pretzels, fudge chunks and bits of ice cream cone landed in their groovy mixes, paving the way for many of the ice cream flavors we see at the store today.
But Haagen-Dazs made ice cream classy. Using the faux Euro name, Haagen-Dazs, with its dense creaminess, made it okay to serve ice cream as dessert for a well-heeled dinner, Weiss said. In essence, the company brought it full circle.
"That's one of the interesting things about ice cream," Weiss said. "You can make and eat a very fancy version but you can get just as much pleasure from a simple soft-serve cone."
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.