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The cool history of ice cream

Even without freezers, ancients enjoyed the frozen treat

No one knows the definitive history of ice cream, but some details about its development are generally accepted by historians.

The first evidence of chilled food comes from Mesopotamia, where icehouses were constructed beside the Euphrates River 4,000 years ago. Egyptian pharaohs had mountain ice shipped to them to preserve food and chill water.

Carlota Cow 1921

Carlota, 1921

In the fifth century B.C., what we would recognize as a snow cone mixed with honey and fruit was sold by the ancient Greeks in the markets of Athens. Persians, having mastered the storage of ice, ate chilled desserts well into summer. Roman Emperor Nero combined mountain ice with fruit and nut toppings.

Ancient Persians stored natural ice inside giant, naturally cooled refrigerators known as yakhchals. The devices used tall windcatchers that kept the sub-level storage space at frigid temperatures.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat asserts in her History of Food, "the Chinese may be credited with inventing a device to make sorbets and ice cream. They poured a mixture of snow and saltpetre over the exteriors of containers filled with syrup, for, in the same way as salt raises the boiling-point of water, it lowers the freezing-point to below zero."

A dessert for the wealthy and powerful

When Italian duchess Catherine de' Medici married the French duc d'Orléans in 1533, it is believed, she brought with her Italian chefs who had recipes for flavored ices. One hundred years later, Charles I of England reportedly was so impressed by "frozen snow" that he offered his ice cream maker a lifetime pension in return for keeping the formula secret so that ice cream could be a royal prerogative.

The secret leaked out when a French recipe for flavored ices appeared in a popular book in 1674.

Before modern refrigeration, ice cream was a luxury. Making it was laborious. Lake ice was cut during the winter and stored in holes in the ground, or in ice houses insulated by straw. Many farmers, including U.S. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, stored ice. Frederic Tudor of Boston turned ice shipping into big business, cutting ice in New England and shipping it around the world.

In early America, ice cream was made and sold by tony confectioners. Jacob Fussell of Baltimore is thought to have made ice cream a mass-market product. He bought large quantities of dairy products from Pennsylvanian farmers and sold them in Baltimore. An unstable demand often left him with a surplus of cream, which he made into ice cream. He built his first ice-cream factory in Seven Valleys, Pa., in 1851. Later, he opened factories in other cities and taught the business to others.

The development of the continuous-process freezer by German engineer Carl von Linde in the 1870s eliminated the need to cut natural ice. Ice cream could now be consumed by anybody.

Missouri has its own significant spot on the timeline of ice cream. At the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, ice cream was pushed into a waffle cone when a vendor ran out of paper cups and spoons. By 1909 the "walk-away cone" had become the ice cream cone.

Milk 1955

Ice cream for a new century

Cheap refrigeration helped ice cream to spread throughout the world in the 20th century, causing an explosion of ice cream stores, flavors and dessert concoctions. Vendors competed on the basis of variety. Howard Johnson's restaurants advertised "a world of 28 flavors." Baskin-Robbins made its 31 flavors ("one for every day of the month") the cornerstone of its marketing strategy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 1.55 billion gallons of frozen desserts were consumed domestically in 2007. The National Eating Trends Services group reports that the five most popular individual flavors are: vanilla (30 percent), chocolate (10 percent), butter pecan (4 percent), strawberry (3.7 percent) and chocolate chip mint (3.2 percent).

In 2003, about 86 percent of packaged ice cream retail sales happened in supermarkets. Convenience store sales were second at 11.4 percent, and drug stores were third at nearly 2 percent.

According to the Canadian Dairy Information Centre, New Zealand leads the world in individual consumption of ice cream at 23 liters per person per year. The U.S. is second at 18.3 liters per person. The Japanese rarely eat the confection, with an annual consumption of only 0.01 liters per person.

No data exists for current ice cream consumption in Mesopotamia.

Story: Randy Mertens