The Inside Scoop
Very few high-tech products taste as good as ice cream
LIKE SO MANY GREAT AMERICANS, ICE CREAM WAS BORN somewhere else. Nevertheless, it has come to be universally thought of as ours. Americans transformed ice cream from a luxury into a staple available—and demanded—every day, all year around, and from a delicacy made in small batches with dishpans and rock salt to the product of computerized, automated production lines turning out hundreds of flavors.
Frozen dairy desserts—as opposed to fruit ices and the like, which stretch back to antiquity—seem to have originated in the late Middle Ages. Colonists brought recipes for frozen desserts with them across the Atlantic, and several of the Founding Fathers were fond of ice cream. In 1790, when the federal government was in New York City, George Washington bought more than two hundred dollars’ worth from a merchant on Chatham Street (now Park Row), to be served at weekly dinner parties and receptions. Mrs. Alexander Hamilton and Dolley Madison also liked to include ice cream in their menus. A handwritten cookbook preserved at Monticello contains several recipes. One of them, which Thomas Jefferson brought back from France, features eggs and vanilla, both of which were unusual in American ice cream at the time. Jefferson, braving the occasional criticism that he enjoyed French cuisine more than plain American fare, sometimes served ice-cream balls in warm pastry.
When cooks began making ice cream as we know it, they needed to do two things: Cool the mixture to a temperature considerably below the freezing point of water, without which it will not harden, and prevent the formation of ice crystals, which give it an unpleasant grainy texture. Centuries later, these remain the basic challenges in ice-cream making.
Achieving the necessary cold temperature was fairly easy; it had long been known that mixing sodium chloride—table salt—with crushed ice creates an ice-water bath much colder than can be achieved with ice alone. In the absence of salt, the liquid portion of an ice-water mixture cannot get colder than thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit without freezing. (If there is no liquid portion, the ice will not absorb heat very readily, since ice is an effective insulator.) But salt lowers the freezing point of water, just as antifreeze does in a car’s radiator. That means that the mixture can get as cold as six degrees below zero, and the liquid part will stay liquid.
Preventing the formation of ice crystals was equally simple, though much more laborious. Crystals form because cream is not a homogeneous mixture but a suspension of fat globules in water. When the freezing point of water is reached, some of the water will separate from the mixture and become solid, like tiny hailstones. This can be avoided by agitating the mixture as it cools; doing so also adds air to the ice cream, which (up to a point) further improves the texture. Anyone who has refrozen melted ice cream is familiar with the crunchy, unappetizing mess that occurs when it is not agitated properly.
Applying these elementary physical principles required a good deal of toil. An 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife , by Lettice Bryan, shows how arduous the process could be. Bryan advises the cook to place a pot containing the ice-cream mixture in a tub with room for a five-inch layer of ice and coarse salt, in equal portions, around the exterior. After placing a folded carpet over the top of the pot for insulation, the cook must rotate it back and forth by hand for two hours, stopping intermittently to scrape the frozen cream off the sides of the pot with a long spoon. Then the ice cream is spooned into molds and placed in a tub filled with fresh ice and salt for another two to three hours.
In addition to the time and effort required, obtaining ice was often an obstacle to making ice cream. Some colonists collected natural ice during wintertime and stored it in cellars or pits. Farmers and plantation owners experimented with different types of storage, including stone dry wells and icehouses. With adequate drainage and insulation a properly built icehouse could preserve enough winter ice, cut from a lake or stream, to last all year long, for preserving foods and cooling drinks.
Because it was difficult and sometimes dangerous, collecting ice became a community effort in many places. Neighbors worked together to break up the ice and transport it to private icehouses or a central storage facility. As cities grew, commercial ice harvesting flourished as well. America’s first artificial ice plant opened in 1865, but the natural ice industry continued to grow until 1886, when it peaked with a harvest of twenty-five million tons.
AS ICE BECAME MORE EASILY available, ice cream became more common. In 1808 it was a daily feature at the Exchange CoffeeHouse in steamy New Orleans; it was made with ice harvested in winter on the Ohio River, shipped down the Mississippi, and put into storage. In 1815 Harriet Pinckney Horry of South Carolina wrote in her diary of eating ice cream in Richmond and Baltimore during a trip north. An English traveler reported seeing “towers of ice cream” in Kentucky in 1835; two years later another tourist wrote that even “common laborers” ate what had once been an expensive luxury.
Although ice had become more plentiful by the early nineteenth century, the problem of all that tedious shaking and scraping still plagued the icecream maker. Nancy Johnson of Philadelphia knew that there had to be a better method. On September 9, 1843, she was issued U.S. patent 3254 for an “artificial freezer.” The patent drawing shows a tall wooden tub, to be filled with ice; a slender metal cylinder that fits inside the tub, to contain the ice-cream mixture; and a dasher, connected to a detachable crank, for stirring the mixture and scraping ice off the inside wall of the cylinder. In short, it was a hand-cranked ice-cream freezer, not much different from those in use today. The cook still had to apply elbow grease, but the motion required was much less tiring, and improved insulation made the ice cream freeze faster.
In 1844 Johnson sold her patent rights to a Philadelphia housewares wholesaler for two hundred dollars and “other considerations” not specified in the contract. The success of her simple, rugged design led many other inventors to try their hands. From 1848 to 1873 at least sixty-nine ice-cream freezers were patented, including the Tingley horizontal freezer, which turned Johnson’s design on its side and, being mounted on a stand, raised the crank to a more comfortable height.
With ice-cream making thus simplified, it was ready for the transition from home production to commercial manufacture. In the summer of 1851 Jacob Fussell was operating a dairy business in Baltimore, receiving milk in bulk from farmers and distributing it through a network of house-to-house routes. When he found himself stuck with a substantial stock of surplus cream, he decided to freeze it as ice cream and wholesale it. He began by making two quarts a day in dishpans; later he switched to handcranked freezers. Not surprisingly, selling ice cream in the Baltimore summer proved quite profitable. Within a few months Fussell had given up his milk business and was devoting all his time and resources to manufacturing ice cream. In 1856 he opened a plant in Washington, D.C., and by 1864 he had expanded to Boston and New York.
Fussell was a Quaker abolitionist, active in the Underground Railroad. He gave fiery antislavery speeches and was a delegate to the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, which nominated Abraham Lincoln for President. He was noted for his charitable works, including the building of Fussell Court, a housing project for freed slaves. During his long life (he lived to be ninety-three), Fussell was instrumental in the expansion of the ice-cream industry. He taught the fundamentals of the business to many men, including Perry Brazelton, a banker and close friend, who opened ice-cream plants in Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, the technology for making ice cream did not change much, but innovations in serving it constantly invigorated the market. These included the ice-cream soda, the sundae, and the cone, each of which has multiple claimants to its invention.
MOST HISTORIANS AGREE that Robert M. Green of Philadelphia was responsible for the ice-cream soda. In October 1874 Green was selling an eggcream-like concoction of sweet cream, syrup, and carbonated water at the fiftieth-anniversary celebration for his city’s Franklin Institute. When he ran out of cream, he substituted vanilla ice cream, and sales skyrocketed. By the end of the celebration, Green’s daily receipts had risen from six dollars to four hundred.
At least five towns have been called the birthplace of the sundae: Evanston, Illinois; Ithaca, New York; Two Rivers, Wisconsin; Norfolk, Virginia; and Washington, D.C. Stories vary as to the origin of the name. Some scholars say that blue laws banned the drinking of soda water on the Lord’s day, requiring druggists to devise a substitute, while others say that the original sundae was a fancy ice-cream soda sold to would-be drinkers on Sundays, when bars had to close. Still others suggest that the sundae received its name because its ingredients were too expensive for everyday consumption. Whatever their origin, sundaes were being served nationwide by the turn of the century. No one can definitively explain the peculiar final e; alternative early spellings included “sundi,” “sondhi,” and “sundaye.” The ingredients also took a while to become standardized; as late as 1910 one magazine defined the sundae as “a mixture of icecream, soda-water, and raspberry juice.”
As for the ice-cream cone, everyone agrees that the idea took off at the St. Louis world’s fair of 1904, though there seem to be almost as many versions of how it came to be improvised as there were visitors to the fair. The cone concept is known to have existed earlier: Italo Marchiony of New York City patented a mold for “the manufacture of ice cream cups and the like” on December 15, 1903. His patent drawing shows a hinged mold for baking ten cups, complete with tiny handles. Marchiony said that he started selling ice cream in his edible cups in 1896, but if so, he was virtually alone. There is no doubt that cones were considered a novelty at the St. Louis fair, that they became an instant hit there, and that they have been popular ever since.
During the early twentieth century more advanced equipment was developed for ice-cream manufacture, but many producers were not convinced of the financial benefits of modernization because the business was strictly seasonal, from May to September in many locations, and they weren’t sure if their profits justified large capital outlays. In 1906 an engineer lamented that “antiquated methods of manufacture exist everywhere” in the ice-cream industry. Industrial freezers had capacities of up to forty quarts and could be churned with power from a gas engine, but in their basic operation they were not much different from Nancy Johnson’s freezer of the 1840s. Most were still cooled by ice and salt. Some larger plants installed ammonia refrigerating equipment to produce their ice, but very few used ammonia to freeze the ice cream directly.
Circulating-brine refrigeration was the first step away from messy salt and ice. In this method, introduced around 1900 at the IXL Ice Cream Company in Warren, Pennsylvania, coils filled with compressed ammonia were immersed in a large tank of saltwater, and the ammonia, which has a boiling point of minus twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, was allowed to evaporate. In doing so, the ammonia absorbed heat from the brine, which was kept from freezing by its high salt content. When the brine’s temperature dropped sufficiently, it was pumped to a jacket surrounding the freezer and then back to the tank, where it was cooled again. Around 1913 ice-cream makers started to eliminate the middleman in this process by using the direct-expansion method, in which liquid ammonia itself (or another refrigerant) surrounds the freezing chamber instead of ammonia-cooled brine.
THE INDUSTRY HAD MADE CON siderable progress in refrigeration, but it still relied on batch freezers, which, as their name suggests, processed one batch of ice cream at a time and had to be emptied before a new one could be started. Until the late 1930s, in fact, batch freezing remained standard in the industry. Two decades later, however, circulatingbrine freezers would be obsolete and direct-expansion batch freezers on the wane. Today batch freezers are found only in retail stores, small plants, and a few large factories, where they are used for limited quantities of specialty products. They have been replaced by the continuous freezer, which can be refilled without interruption, allowing nonstop production.
The Creamery Package disk continuous freezer was among the first to hit the market, around 1907. This box-shaped freezer forced cold brine through a series of hollow revolving disks, which both cooled and agitated the ice-cream mix. By exposing a far larger surface area to the refrigerant, the Creamery Package made the process go much faster, and by opening the freezer at both ends, it made possible continuous input and output, greatly speeding up the production process. When the mix reached the outlet chute, it was solid enough for packing (though it would still require several more hours of chilling to become firm enough for sale) and had absorbed enough air to give it the proper texture.
Several hundred Creamery Package freezers went into commercial operation during the 1910s and 1920s, but some manufacturers complained that the quick freezing produced coarse ice cream. Homogenization, an early-1900s process in which the mix is forced through tiny holes under pressure to break up fat globules, reduced the problem somewhat. Another solution, which was controversial at first but grew more popular as the decades passed, was adding small amounts of stabilizer—a water-absorbing ingredient, such as gelatin or pectin, that can soak up excess water and prevent it from crystallizing. In the 1960s the industry would experiment with lower freezing temperatures using advanced refrigeration equipment and discover that ice cream produced at colder temperatures has an even smoother texture.
In 1929 Clarence Vogt of Louisville, Kentucky, patented a continuous freezer that soon gained a large portion of the market because it yielded a high-quality product. In Vogt’s original design, ice-cream mix was cooled and piped into a reservoir. From there it traveled through a vacuum delivery pipe into the freezer and was quickly brought to the desired consistency by passing between two revolving cylinders, resembling laundry wringers, filled with cold brine. As the cylinders turned, knives with scalloped edges scraped off the frozen ice cream, allowing it to fall in a continuous stream onto a conveyor belt. In later models ammonia, which reaches a lower temperature but is harder to handle, replaced the brine.
Vogt’s success prompted other companies to make continuous freezers, and by 1940 they were responsible for one-half to two-thirds of the United States’s total ice-cream production. Although they had some disadvantages, such as exacting maintenance requirements, they improved productivity and ensured a standardized product because the process could be regulated automatically.
For convenience in handling, manufacturers remove ice cream from the freezer while it is still soft and harden it in a deep freeze. But sixty years ago J. F. McCullough and his son Alex, of the Homemade Ice Cream Company in Green River, Illinois, loved the soft blend just as it came from the freezer and believed that others would too. In 1938 market tests convinced them that soft serve would sell. Unfortunately, none of the freezers then on the market were suitable for a retail soft-serve business because they were too big. Then one day, while reading a Chicago newspaper, the elder McCullough saw an advertisement for a freezer designed specifically for retail operations.
The McCulloughs contacted the freezer’s inventor, Harry M. Oltz, and asked him to build a prototype adapted to the type of store they had in mind. In Oltz’s first attempt the softserve mix was agitated and frozen in a bowl that sat in a galvanized iron trough filled with ice and salt. Two men on ladders had to shovel large quantities of ice around the bowl to maintain the soft serve at the right consistency. Alex McCullough modified this cumbersome design, and in June 1940 the world’s first Dairy Queen opened in Joliet, Illinois. The original Dairy Queens were remarkably successful, and the soft-serve business seemed on the verge of exploding when World War II intervened.
Although ice cream had been classified as an essential foodstuff during the First World War, now the industry found itself subject to rationing. Manufacturers responded by altering their product mix and substituting ingredients—for example, using corn syrup instead of sugar. While restaurants and soda fountains coped with shortages, ice cream produced for military consumption was exempt from rationing, and plants near military bases benefited from large government orders.
FOR SOLDIERS FAR FROM HOME , ice cream was a comforting reminder of Main Street; mess sergeants reported that men returning from combat could often eat nothing else. A Navy psychiatrist who studied combat fatigue concluded that ice cream and showers were an effective treatment. Recognizing that ice cream both boosted morale and stimulated appetites dulled by a monotonous diet, military nutritionists sought to make it readily available to the troops.
In Army camps ice cream was a staple of the GI’s Sunday dinner and whenever possible was served more often. To supply combat troops, the Army made plans to operate miniature ice-cream factories just behind the battle lines. Some ships were equipped with compact soda fountains, and the Navy commissioned the first floating ice-cream plant, a concrete barge that could produce 5,100 gallons of the stuff every hour.
When the military didn’t supply equipment for making ice cream, soldiers sometimes improvised their own. Airmen stationed in Britain placed ice-cream mix in large cans in the tail gunner’s compartments of bombers, where the plane’s vibrations and the cold temperatures at high altitude yielded a velvety product. Soldiers in the Arctic discovered that ice cream could be frozen in only five minutes when exposed to that region’s extreme temperatures. In North Africa, Navy Seabees assembled an ice-cream maker using scraps of matériel discarded by German, Italian, and American troops.
After the war the industry continued to change. Soda fountains began to disappear, forcing Hollywood talent scouts to look elsewhere, as Americans bought more ice cream at roadside outlets and supermarkets. Two technological developments contributed to this trend: the building of the interstate highway system and the advent of economical home freezers, which had been a rarity before the war but were commonplace by the mid-1950s. The traditional icebox—a simple enclosed box with a block of ice inside—did not get anywhere near the zero degrees Fahrenheit needed to keep ice cream from getting mushy, so until the late 1940s most Americans could enjoy ice cream only at the point of sale. (Some groceries did sell ice cream in insulated containers for home consumption, beginning in the 1930s; it would last about a day in a household refrigerator or icebox.)
Beginning in the early 1960s, the ice-cream industry increased automation in virtually every aspect of its operations. In 1960 H. P. Hood & Sons of Boston installed the first fully automatic system for blending raw ingredients to make ice-cream mix. A singlepurpose analog computer determined the amount of each ingredient in the mix, and electronic equipment controlled I by coded punch cards opened valves to send the ingredients from storage tanks to blending tanks, measuring their flow with electrical impulses from metering devices. By the 1980s ice-cream plants were using computers in mixing, freezing, packaging, hardening, cleaning equipment, controlling inventory, planning, purchasing, conserving energy, and controlling emissions.
Despite these constant technical improvements, Old World elegance remains more alluring than New World efficiency in ice cream, as in many other areas of life. Thus manufacturers in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and Utica, New York, using more than a century’s worth of homegrown technology, adopt ersatz Scandinavian or Italian names to give their products extra cachet. Such charades symbolize America’s role in the ice-cream story. Early Europeans saw ice cream as an exclusive treat for the aristocracy; it’s said that Charles I of England would not allow it to be served at any table except his own. It took American egalitarianism, no less than American ingenuity, to make the toasted-almond bar an everyday treat.