You don’t often hear “thank you Mr. President” these days, but today we can boldly say just that to a past president because today is National Ice Cream Day thanks to President Ronald Reagan. Yep, good ole’ Ronnie saw to it that a special day be celebrated the third Sunday in July to commemorate the frozen treat enjoyed by more than 90 percent of the U.S. population. It became official in 1984 and not only hailed all things ice cream, but helped the American dairy industry as well. Today, nine percent of all milk produced in the U.S. is used in making ice cream.
I’m not a big ice cream eater and really don’t buy it, but I do like a rare cone or scoop of it. Today there are many versions and flavors of ice cream, but according to the International Dairy Foods Association, how the frozen concoction got its start is debatable.
No specific date or inventor can be credited with creating the first ever ice cream but its origins do go way back. The Bible references King Solomon’s love of iced drinks; Alexander the Great was known to have enjoyed snow and ice flavored with honey and nectar; Persians were said to have served their royal families a recipe using saffron, iced rose water, vermicelli, and fruit; and during the Roman Empire Caesar sent workers into the mountains to retrieve snow, which he would later flavor with fruits and juices.
That’s about all we know until more than 1,000 years later, when Marco Polo returned to Italy from the Far East with a recipe that resembled what we call sherbet today. Italy can also lay claim to developing what was called “Cream Ice” when in 1660 an Italian man named Francesco Procopio Dei Coltelli offered his makings to the public. By retrofitting a machine made by his fisherman grandfather, he produced a top-quality gelato blending milk, butter eggs, and cream. The treat was sold in Paris and became a hit. I’ve had gelato in Italy, and can say without a doubt it is the best in the world. Thank you Francesco!
The U.S. was a bit slower in discovering the love for a bowl of frozen anything. Ice cream was first advertised in America in the “New York Gazette” in 1777, but the first official account of it stateside came in a letter written in 1744 by a guest of Maryland’s governor who wasn’t the only statesman to favor the dessert. Inventory records of Mount Vernon revealed two pewter ice cream pots belonging to George Washington and none other than Dolly Madison is known to have served a strawberry version at President Madison’s second inaugural ball. Thomas Jefferson was also an ice cream lover, and the Library of Congress today houses his original handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream, which is pictured above.
Ice cream remained an elite confection until around 1800 when insulated ice cream houses were invented. By 1851, the manufacturing revolution changed not only America as a whole, but the ice cream industry as well when commercial ice cream production started in Boston. Steam power, mechanical refrigeration, the homogenizer, electric powered motors, new freezing processes, and motorized delivery all contributed to bringing ice cream to the masses. Fast forward to 2020, when U.S. ice cream makers churned out just over 1 billion gallons of ice cream. Maybe it was the lockdown. Maybe we just love ice cream.
The dessert’s growing popularity also led to offshoot enterprises, including the quintessential American soda fountain shop and its quickly popular ice cream soda. Think 1950s and you think soda fountain: cute little counter seats all lined up and staff people wearing striped outfits. You don’t get any more American than that.
When religious leaders complained about congregations partaking in what they called “sinfully rich sodas” on Sundays, ice cream merchants responded by eliminating the carbonated water from the dessert and the name was later changed to “sundae” to remove any connection to the Sabbath. The result? A dessert concoction that even I can’t resist: the ice cream sundae.
Floats and Banana Splits also have stories behind their names. Philadelphia soda-shop owner Robert McCay Green inadvertently made the first float in 1874 when he substituted ice cream for regular cream in a classic cream soda. As for the ever-popular and oh-so-yummy banana split, its name and invention is widely attributed to David Strickler also of Pennsylvania who made one on a whim in 1904 when bananas were still a relatively new U.S. import.
It didn’t take long for retailers to take note and more and more prepackaged ice cream began being sold in supermarkets. Sadly, this commercial renaissance coincided with the slow but steady disappearance of ice cream parlors and soda fountains and today remnants of them like toy ice cream trucks, signage, and packaging ice cream tins are collector’s items sought the world over.
With growing demand came a variety of supply, including ice cream on a stick, ice cream sandwiches, and other concoctions, including the ice cream cone, which was invented in 1904. Back then there was just one type of cone but today there is a wide variety of choices, with waffle cones and sugar cones tied for the most popular ice cream containers.
One of my happiest childhood memories was my mom and dad packing my two sisters and me in the car and heading to Baskin Robbins for our pick of their 31 flavors. We loved 31 Flavors and it still holds a special place in my heart.
Brand loyalty is high in the ice cream industry. I personally prefer Texas’ own Blue Bell ice cream or Halo Top, a lower-calorie option. Others like everything from Häagen-Dazs to Breyers and beyond. A quick tidbit about Häagen-Dazs: it’s an American-made brand that got its origins not in Belgium but the Bronx.
Husband and wife ice cream entrepreneurs Reuben and Rose Mattus decided to start their own confection company in the Bronx in 1959. Reuben’s uncle had been hawking homemade Italian lemon-ices on the streets of Brooklyn since Reuben was 10-years-old and eventually expanded into a family-run business called Senator Frozen Products. Business was sparse and the couple knew they wanted a new name to evoke an aura of old-world craftsmanship. Both Jews of Polish descent, Reuben and Rose were drawn to the Danish language as Denmark was the only country that saved the Jews during World War II. Reuben came up with the name Häagen-Dazs, a Danish-sounding name that means absolutely nothing; and it stuck. It also worked as the brand rose to prominence, eventually being purchased by Pillsbury in 1983 and later by Nestlé.
Something I loved learning while researching this topic is that the majority of U.S. ice cream and frozen dessert manufacturers have been in business for more than 50 years and many are still family-owned. So loyal are ice cream eaters and so enamored with the product are they that it is said the brain of an ice cream lover has been likened to that of an addict. Yikes! There’s even a Museum of Ice Cream in San Francisco.
So there’s the scoop on ice cream, but what about all the different kinds? What is the difference, you might wonder as do I, between ice cream, gelato, sorbet, and sherbet? According to realsimple.com, not all frozen treats are created equal. Here’s the scoop on that.
Ice Cream. The USDA requires any frozen treat labeled “ice cream” to contain at least 10 percent milk fat and the product must also get churned during freezing.
Gelato. If you’ve ever been to Italy, you know this stuff is the bomb. The word means “ice cream” in Italian but the two are not the same. Gelato also has a custard base like ice cream, but it contains less milk fat and less churned air, resulting in a denser texture and a softer, glossier look. Gelato is also traditionally served at slightly warmer temperatures.
Sorbet. Containing only fruit and sugar and no dairy, this is what you’ve been served as a palette cleanser during multi-course meals. Sorbet’s intense fruit flavor makes it the perfect refreshing accoutrement.
Sherbet. Sorbet’s creamier cousin, sherbet is basically sorbet with milk; usually buttermilk. It also contains cream, egg whites, and gelatin.
Frozen custard. This is what you’re looking for if you’re looking for creamy. Frozen custard is made just like ice cream but with added egg yolk, resulting in a delectable texture that’s similar to melted ice cream. This stuff is especially popular in the Midwest and South.
Frozen yogurt. Instead of milk or cream, frozen yogurt is just that: yogurt. It is usually more tart and lower in fat than ice cream.
As for calories and fat content, we all know ice cream is loaded with both, but what about the options? In general, ice cream contains at least 10 percent butter fat but often times that content is between 15-25 percent. Italian gelato, on the other hand, contains less than 10 percent fat while most sorbets are naturally fat-free. Don’t let that fool you though, as what they lack in fat they make up with in sugar. They also lack calcium since they’re non-dairy. Calorie-wise, most sherbets and sorbets have the same number of calories as any “light,” “low-fat,” or “nonfat” ice cream or frozen yogurt. Interestingly enough, demand for low-fat or non-fat ice cream is just 4 percent.
Are you screaming for ice cream yet? Until then, I’ll leave you with a bevy of ice cream fun facts. Enjoy!
- The average American consumes more than 22 pounds of ice cream and frozen desserts each year.
- 90 percent of American households consume ice cream.
- The ice cream industry has a $13.1 billion impact on the U.S. economy, supports more than 28,000 direct jobs, and generates $1.8 billion in direct wages.
- The milk produced by a cow in its lifetime can make 9,000 gallons of ice cream.
- New Zealand owns the title of top ice cream consumer in the world and Long Beach, California eats the most ice cream in the U.S.
- Because of its yummy taste and texture, ice cream was used as a greeting when immigrants arrived on Ellis Island.
- The Great Lakes region (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin) is the most successful ice cream market in the U.S.
- Pecans are the most popular nut flavoring and strawberry is the most popular fruit in ice cream.
- Candy and chocolate pieces are the most popular ice cream confections.
MOST POPULAR FLAVORS
It’s hard to say what the most popular ice cream flavor is, as it varies with age groups. Those 14-17 like Mint Chocolate Chip best, 18-24 year olds choose Cookies ‘n Cream, those aged 25-34 prefer Cookie Dough, and Chocolate is the number 1 choice of those 35-44 and over. Still, Vanilla is often considered the most popular ice cream flavor in the U.S. with 29 percent of total sales.