In this delicious story of ice cream, we are taken on an exotic journey from the old world to the new, from ice harvesting in ancient China to birthday celebrations in the age of Louis XIV to ice-cream cones painted by Andy Warhol in the twentieth century. It's a story filled with history, adventure, myth, and intriguing facts about ice cream. Did you know that the Scots believed ice-cream parlours were dens of iniquity? Or that there are more than seven hundred flavours and that the flavour you prefer expresses your personality?
In all its many forms, ice cream has become one of the oldest, most popular, and democratic of pleasures. "The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream,"writes poet Wallace Stevens. A wonderfully surprising, entertaining, and intelligent book, Cool is about the dessert itself and how we regard it. As Marilyn Powell reveals, ice cream is the dessert of memory, a perfect food for the imagination. Containing illustrations, anecdotes, and famous recipes, Cool will delight ice-cream lovers around the world.
a taste for cold
Ah, nostalgia! In a world gone by—well, not so long ago—a little ritual used to take place on hot summer days. Perhaps you’re old enough to remember, or your parents or grandparents told you about it. When ice was carried by horse and wagon and then by truck, children were drawn to it irresistibly. They’d watch and wait for the iceman to split off a block with his pick and carry it up the walk to make a home delivery. And, when the coast was clear, they’d snatch up the shards that were left behind. They sucked or crunched them, biting down on them with their teeth. The ice squeaked and shattered, filling their cheeks with silvery fragments, good for cooling off. That scene at the back of the wagon or truck was all about a taste for cold, and it wasn’t new.
Putting ice in the mouth is an old, old practice. The ancient Greeks and Romans added crushed ice to their wine to cool it and, therefore, themselves. Perhaps, delicately, politely, they let the ice melt to a liquid on their tongue, without crushing it with their teeth. As for the Arabs of the distant past, they were masters of a drink they called sharab. That’s what the word means in classical Arabic: “a drink.” It was concocted from a luscious array of possibilities—orange, lemon, quince, cranberry, cherry, apricot, plum, grape, or pomegranate syrup, spices and blossoms—mixed with water, to which were added ice or snow. But the word began to be used for a drink that contained alcohol as well, and so, in the late Middle Ages, a new word was coined, sharbat, from which our word sherbet is derived.
You see where this is going. From ice to … if not full-bodied dairy ice cream, then possibly granita, a host of smallish ice crystals suspended in a frozen concoction of water, sugar, and flavouring. Yum. The texture is coarse, the ice crystals detectable, as they’re not supposed to be in ice cream.
But wait a minute, I hear you saying, granita is Sicilian, not Arabian. Well, Sicily was colonized by the Greeks and Romans, and in the ninth and tenth centuries was under Arab rule. The Sicilians are supposed to have learned how to make granita and sherbet from the Arabs, who are supposed to have discovered how to freeze their sharab, later sharbat. And where do you suppose the Arabs got the idea?
As writer Annie Dillard says in her book The Writing Life, “To find a honey tree, first catch a bee.” And then she describes a process of releasing the captured bee, observing where it goes, capturing another and doing the same, letting the bees lead your search until you see them enter the tree. Dillard credits Henry David Thoreau with alerting her to this watchful pursuit of honey, which she uses as an approach to writing and I’m using to trace ice cream as far back as I can. Of course, I’m beginning with a bee that’s not a bee at all but an iceman. After all, to understand a taste for cold, it makes sense to keep an eye on him. Ice travels. Not simply in floes but culturally, socially, and it has a documented history.
What follows, then, is a leap back into a time within reach, with connections that reach back earlier still. It’s unlikely a culture will be found that munched its way happily through ice, as some people, these days, champ down on ice cubes. But one thing is certain: there was a natural progression from ice to ice cream.
Spadina House sits on a hill with a view that once looked down, unobstructed, all the way to Lake Ontario. Today, it’s a museum on a circular drive that feeds onto a street in Toronto, the city in which I live. Complete with original furniture, paintings, and art objects, the house is witness to the tastes of successive generations of two families, Victorian and Edwardian. Everything is as it was, as though they were still in residence.
Spadina House still has the icebox—or “refrigerator,” as it was known then—that the family purchased in 1909. I make an appointment with Fiona Lucas to see the relic. She works as a program officer at the house and she has written a paper about the icebox.
“The refrigerator could hold about 600 pounds of ice,” she says. I’m impressed. The average home model held anywhere from 50 to 125 pounds. “It was probably designed for commercial use,” Lucas explains. Its sheer size—four and a half feet wide, seven feet deep, and fifteen feet high—made it necessary for a room to be built behind the kitchen to accommodate it. A grown man could lie down in its upper ice compartment. “There’s a door high up on the wall for the ice to come through—see it?” Fiona Lucas gestures towards the back of the ice compartment. “And there’s the remnants of a pulley system. The iceman would bring his wagon up the drive to the small, square service door. The ice would be pulleyed up and pushed through the door.” All this choreography was possible because the icebox sits against an exterior wall of the house.
The Eureka, to give it its company name, was top of the line. There’s a locker at the rear, for hanging meat, which would have been insulated with sawdust. At the front are four compartments lined with opal enamel, which wouldn’t chip, was a non-conductor, and resistant to moisture. Its doors are oak. Naturally, the Eureka did its daily job of keeping food fresh. But it represented so much more.
At the moment it was purchased, it was the latest in ice-house architecture that already stretched over millennia. There is evidence of ice pits in Iron Age Britain and records of ice houses in Mesopotamia almost four thousand years ago. Alexander the Great ordered snow pits dug and layered with oak branches when he set out to conquer the city of Petra in 837 bc. Ice was stored in pits, caves, wells, and cellars. Materials for construction varied—mud, brick, stone, wood. And insulation was provided by sand, ash, straw, sawdust, sheepskin, even goat hair and rabbit fur. The Persians covered their underground chambers with conical stacks or hillocks that resembled giant beehives, some of which rose seventy feet above ground.
As for Europe, in the sixteenth century, the king of Denmark ordered a thatched-roof ice house built on his estate at Elsinore—precisely the place to keep the “funeral bak’d meats” that, as Hamlet puts it, “coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” of his mother and uncle. Except there's little evidence of that kind of practice until a couple of centuries later. In the eighteenth century, shelves for food were being installed in English ice houses. Yet by then, the Chinese had been refrigerating fish and fruit for thousands of years.
Kings and conquerors had their ice houses. Emperors, khans, and presidents had theirs. And just plain estate owners followed suit. Before the arrival of the icebox at Spadina, an ice house once stood on the grounds, but obviously it was much more convenient to locate that kind of structure indoors. Enter the Eureka, along with the iceman to supply it.
“We still have bills from the 1930s for ice delivery,” Fiona Lucas tells me, “and I was looking this morning at the bill for August 1934, when 113 hundred-pound blocks were delivered.” (Blocks were available in different weights.) “So that’s about five and a half tons of ice. It must have been a hot month.” What were they doing with all that ice? Making ice cream, for one thing. At the very least, keeping it frozen until it was served. By then, an ice-cream culture had developed, as events in the history of Spadina House make clear.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Albert Austin, a prosperous businessman, was the house’s owner. His wife, Mary, liked to entertain on a grand scale, with teas, dances, dinner parties, fêtes, and garden parties, and she could afford to hire professionals. A receipt survives in Spadina’s archives from the Harry Webb Co., Caterers, Bakers and Manufacturing Confectioners, for a garden party in June 1900 attended by some 310 guests. In addition to the sandwiches and watercress rolls, punch, cakes, and fresh fruit, Mary ordered three gallons of Neapolitan ice cream (the kind in layers, introduced to the rest of the world by makers from Naples in the nineteenth century) and three gallons of strawberry ice cream. To be on the safe side, as a note in her own hand attests, she then ordered more punch and a gallon of vanilla ice cream, and half a gallon of orange water ice.
The frozen fare was to be set out on “ice plates” (also provided by the caterer). Dating back at least to Madame de Pompadour, who, on another June day in 1754, commissioned “plateaux” in white and gold china, ice cream has had dishes, goblets, cups, bowls, glasses, and eventually cutlery—spoons and forks manufactured by Tiffany’s, no less—devoted to it. In short, in the circles in which Mary and Albert Austin moved, ice cream involved expensive equipment and ingredients and required special handling. Especially on a warm June day.
In her 1885 Book of Ices, Mrs. A. B. Marshall of London recommended that presentation at any social gathering should be fastidiously planned:
At large parties two sorts of ices are usually served, and should be carefully contrasted. A pleasing variety is often produced by filling little moulds with different kinds of ice, which are then served in tiny lace paper cups, under the name glaces assorties … Another very popular form is the Neapolitan ice.
Mary Austin was right in fashion. Mrs. Marshall also advised the use of a Neapolitan box to achieve the layers, a box she manufactured, of course. Though it could be any of two or more flavours, in North America, Neapolitan was usually vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry layers. And so it has remained.
(By the way, in English, “ice”—with or without milk, cream, or eggs—has proved an umbrella term for a dessert that has journeyed through centuries, covered a vast territory, and blurred any single, universally accepted definition I can find. About the only way to pin its nature down is to note that an ice always contains water and sugar. But I like the term “ice.” It highlights the taste for cold, and, when Mrs. Marshall was writing, it was as frequently used as “ice cream” is now.)
As the years rolled on, Mary and Albert Austin continued to offer ices or ice cream as part of the statement they were making. On December 5, 1905, the society page of Saturday Night magazine enthused about a dance party at Spadina House:
The huge billiard room, forty-five feet long and broad in proportion, was lined with easy chairs and cushioned window seats, and on the table were set cool drinks and ices until supperhour …
Mr. Austin had devised a “cooling off” retreat between the dances, by enclosing the verandah and furnishing it in luxurious Turkish style, and softly lighting it with ruby lights.
No doubt Mrs. Marshall’s “glaces assorties” in their “tiny lace paper cups” were little multicoloured scoops—“served rough,” as she would have put it. Or perhaps they were moulded in the shape of stars or crescent moons to tie in with the motif of the evening. “Turkish style” was very appropriate to the presentation of ice cream; it hinted at provenance, if the Austins but knew it. Until they were served, the ices would have been kept in the equivalent of Mrs. Marshall’s “ice cave” (a long, narrow portable metal box lined with ice, which she advertised for use “during Balls, Evening and Garden Parties”) or stored in something larger—the ice house, and, in time, the icebox.
Yes, I'm embellishing. The context, however, is fact. Without the iceman, who hefted blocks of ice weighing twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred pounds and delivered them to the property, there would have been no ice cream to remember. Between dances, the ladies and gentlemen would have perspired. Gentility would have suffered from the lack of cold, restorative refreshment. Unthinkable.
By the 1930s, the iceman, with his pick, hook, and tongs, was a familiar visitor to Spadina House—just as electric refrigerators were taking over the market and beginning to put an end to his business for good. Eventually, along would come electric freezers, giving ice cream a longer shelf life, and the direct connection to the past would be broken. So, picture the Austins, on the lawn of their house, enjoying the view down to the city and the lake in the distance. They’re indulging in peach sherbet. It’s a delicate, elegiac moment; rosy signs of twilight are in the sky. Each spoonful settles in the mouth, half solid, half liquid, gently melting away—a reminder of the transitory nature of life and of pleasure. This is the essence of ice cream, but never so intensely experienced as in the age of the iceman. No wonder a mythology grew up around it.
The practice is ancient. Everywhere the summer was intense, everywhere there were mountains—from the Taurus range in Turkey to the Himalayas in India and the Atlas mountains in North Africa—men went up into them to collect ice and snow. There’s even this reference in the Bible: “As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him” (Proverbs 25:13). Snow was so valued, it was “harvested” as a crop, in other words. Under the Ottoman rulers of the Turkish Empire, the Moghuls of Northern India, in the lands of the Persians and, of course, the Arabs, a harvest of ice and snow was packed, stacked, and even sold in the marketplace. The Greeks, who probably adopted the habit of cooling their drinks and building ice houses from Middle Easterners, used to climb Mount Olympus to gather snow they sold in the market as early as the fifth century bc.
As for the Romans, they sent slaves with baskets and donkeys up into the Piedmontese Alps. Not only hard work, but perilous, with the surety that much of what was amassed would melt before it reached its destination. Nevertheless, it was work that continued through different societies, sometimes in the same place. The Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Sicilians, all in their turn, gathered Mount Etna’s snow and packed it in grottoes on the slopes until it was needed.
And here's where a founding myth comes into play: the emperor Nero is credited with the invention of ice cream. Not personally, you understand, but it's supposed to have happened during his reign (54–68 ad). The claim is that Nero liked sherbet—what else but close kin to the exquisitely flavoured fruit drinks that the Arabs knew so much about. Nero's, it seems, were flavoured with honey, fruit juices, and fruit pulp, and chilled with ice. The emperor was simply following an irresistible trend. But in mythology, of course, sherbet stood in for ice cream. And it happened again.
Years ago, I came across another blended tale, part fiction, part fact. During the Third Crusade, Richard the Lion-Heart joined the siege of the city of Acre in Syria … true. Almost immediately after his arrival in June 1191, the English king fell desperately ill and was unable to leave his tent … true. Saladin, the great Saracen leader, sent sherbet to Richard as a gesture of respect … false. But such a civilized and civilizing gesture in the midst of a relentlessly brutal conflict, it makes you wish it happened. There is an additional fact that helps explain the genesis of the myth. According to medieval chronicles, the king’s ambassadors visited Saladin in his camp on July 4, asking to buy fruit and snow. Now what do you suppose they planned to do with their purchases—make sherbet, or what Saladin would have recognized as sharab?
The Greek physician Galen (129–200 ad) divided illnesses into categories of hot and cold. Since fever was obviously hot, the remedy was to apply cold. Perhaps the English king’s doctors were familiar with the prescription. The Arabs, whose translation of Galen was one of the routes his teachings entered Western medicine, certainly were. They used ice as a means of cooling the body, frequently advocating cold baths and chilled drinks. Saladin obliged the ambassadors by sending peaches, pears, and snow to the English king.
Richard recovered from a disease that could make hair and nails fall out, that could cause loss of sight and ultimately death—likely scurvy—and got on with the strategy and ruthlessness for which he was famous: he massacred every single one of the hostages he took when Acre fell at last into his hands on July 12. As for the sherbet, turned into a solid, it became part of ice-cream lore.
I e-mail my friend Raja Alem. She lives in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, and is a poet, playwright, and novelist. The subject of much of her writing is the Arabia of the past. “Can you tell me anything about sherbet,” I ask her, “about its connection with ice cream?”
Raja replies that her brother, Nabeel, has heard that ice cream was invented by the Syrians. Milk was left out in cold weather, and, when the milk froze, everyone thought it had gone bad. It seems they grew to like this boza (from the verb meaning “spoiled”). But, through a little research, I discover that boza, a drink made from fermented grains in Turkey, is not buza, Syrian ice cream. It must be a case of one word being mistaken for another, creating folklore.
As for sherbet, Raja consults her friend Suraihi, a specialist in the language. He confirms that the word is Arabic in origin, though it underwent Turkish modification. We’re making slow but steady progress. She also consults a man she refers to simply as Professor Khazindar, who knows stories of early Mecca, the city in which she grew up. The professor doesn’t find ice cream in One Thousand and One Nights, but he does find sharab—drinks of water, honey, milk, wine—there in the sensuous landscape of Scheherazade, with its genii and flying carpets, Aladdin and his lamp, Sinbad, Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves, kings, viziers, sheiks, caliphs, slave girls, the whole gang. And this leads Raja to improvise on a theme, recalling the drink she's known all her life, one that is cold, and made with fruit and lots of sugar: sharbat.
The minute I see this word, I visualize the great caliphs at banquets in their palaces. Or I see the love scenes in which female slaves sip those drinks that flow in the rivers of paradise. The slave girls feed the caliphs right from their lips. In One Thousand and One Nights, every love scene is watered with sharab, and I am reminded of sharbat...
Whenever I am in London, New York, or Paris, the word sherbet catches my eye, and a wave of homesickness washes over me. I've always wondered what this Arabic word was doing in those Western cities.
Blame it on travel, trade, and war. Putting ice in your drink as a means of beating the heat gradually spread across Europe and ultimately reached the New World too. Conversion began on the spot. Canon Pietro Casola of Milan, a pilgrim to the Holy Land, arrived in Jaffa in 1494 and was greeted by the Arabs with a sack of snow for cooling water. Fulcher of Chartres noted of the Crusaders (including himself) who settled in the territories they conquered, “We who were occidentals have now become orientals.” That means they must have learned the Eastern custom of expressing the juice of fresh fruit, sweetening it to taste, passing it through a silver strainer to remove pips, pouring in water two-thirds full, and filling the container to the brim with blocks of ice or snow. Then they were ready to drink their sherbet with the best of them. That's how Englishman C. J. Wills described the elegant ceremony he witnessed in Persia in 1881. And it’s pretty much the method for making a fruit drink in Raja's family today. This one is compliments of her aunt Fatma Hijji.
4 glasses of sugar
4 glasses of mulberries
Catechu water or orange flower water to taste [Catechu is astringent and derived from tropical plants.]
Put sugar in a glass pitcher.
Press mulberries and strain with a strainer.
Add juice to the sugar, stir, and leave in the refrigerator to chill. [This last the only concession to a modern world.]
To drink, pour concentrated fruit juice into a glass until one-quarter full, then add cold water and ice to the brim. Add catechu water or orange flower water to taste.
According to Elizabeth David, in her book The Harvest of the Cold Months (her title, of course, echoing the biblical reference), sherbet the drink came to Europe via Persia, Moghul India, and Turkey, in the form of “essences, pastes and powders” ready for mixing—distillations of exotic flowers and fruits, flavours of lemons, roses, violets, jasmine, redolent of the countries of their origin. (They were in no way related to the fizzy mixture of sugar, bicarbonate of soda, and cream of tartar that was introduced in England in the nineteenth century and is known today as sherbet powder.)
David points out that, in the 1570s, Francesco de’ Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, wrote to a friend asking for ricette delle sorbette (recipes for sherbet) in the Turkish manner. As well, she refers to the tale that icy sherbet was offered to customers in Turkish-style baths in Paris in the late sixteenth century and was available, as “made in Turkie,” at a London coffee house in the seventeenth. Perhaps sherbet was also salep, a powder made from the root of an orchid that was mixed with orange flower water or rosewater to make a drink. In the late seventeenth century, salep was much enjoyed by the English, who knew it as “salop” or “saloop.” In parts of the Middle East today, it’s used in the making of a very chewy, elastic ice cream, which the Syrians call—you guessed it—buza. In Egypt, a drink from salep continues to be made.
Raja Alem informs me that her sister, Shadia, always associates sherbet with rosewater; every sherbet she has ever tasted was mixed with it. The sherbet was so sweet, it causes Shadia’s tongue to curl even now when she thinks of it. Raja also reports that she has been looking into an Arab dictionary that contains every Arabic word along with each one’s endless branching divisions and usages. Relying on the dictionary, here’s how she describes the link between sherbet and the watering of a palm tree.
Al-sh-a-rabat: like a small trough, dug round the palm tree’s base or trunk, to be filled with water to allow the palm tree to drink of it. The plural of the word is sha-ra-bat. I believe that the word sharbat came from those sha-ra-bat around the palm trees. In Egypt, sharbat is the drink which is distributed during weddings, when a child is born, or a student passes an examination. People mix the powder of fruits with water and distribute it in the street for every passer-by to enjoy, to pray for prosperity and for reasons to celebrate in the future.
How fascinating words are in their meandering through geography, history, and cuisine. Though Oriental sherbet didn't become solid until late in its career, it was the drink that proved a source of inspiration for European confectioners. They took it the next step: they froze it. From sharab and sharbat to sorbetti and sorbets.
However, first there was a major obstacle to overcome. Europeans had to be persuaded to let cold—freezing cold—into their bodies.
According to The Handy Weather Answer Book, snow that falls at a temperature near freezing is denser than snow that falls at a higher temperature, and, when it’s extremely cold and the sky is clear, ice crystals may condense and fall as what is known as diamond dust. We understand snow observationally, scientifically. But our response to it is also emotional, social, subject to a wide range of influences that change over time. What appears simple turns out to be complicated.
After a winter snowfall, children throw snowballs, or they lie down on their backs and fan their arms and legs, making snow angels. And sometimes they put snow in their mouths and eat it. Winter bites back, of course. If they try to lick ice on a very cold day, their tongues can stick to the surface, frozen by their own spit. Children know this, yet someone always wants to lick.
One evening, I was watching television coverage of the winter carnival in Quebec City, and I saw visitors pouring maple syrup on clean snow, collecting the shapeless, sticky, cold mass on a popsicle stick and popping it into their mouths. The practice of pouring maple syrup on clean snow goes back to the early days of Canada, when aboriginals taught settlers to do it. And the scene caused me to remember something my brother-in-law Bill Shirley once told me. Bill grew up in Texas, and on those rare occasions when snow fell in his part of the world, his grandmother and aunts would run out and collect it “real quick, while it was still fresh, fluffy, and pure.” They’d pour vanilla extract on it, and add sugar. “And we’d eat it,” Bill explained.
In his charming memoir From Stone Orchard, writer Timothy Findley describes what he calls snow-bread, “a pioneer concoction, quintessentially Canadian,” which consists of freshly fallen snow and cornmeal, baked in the oven.
Mix four or five parts of snow—depending on how fluffy it is—and one part of cornmeal. Place the mixture in greased muffin pans—we use bacon fat, for flavour—and bake for fifteen minutes at 425°F. As the melting snow provides liquid, the natural gases gathered by the falling flakes are released by heat and bubble out to provide the leavening. Serve this “snow-bread” with lots of butter and maple syrup.
Remarkable the ways human beings have found to make ice and snow delicious.
In another e-mail from Raja Alem, she mentions that she and her sister, Shadia, used to mix fruit with snow that they collected from outside their grandmother's door in Taif, Saudi Arabia. They'd eat it in secret because, as Raja put it, her mother would never have imagined her children devouring “the iced tears of the sky.” There's the complication. The enterprise has a dark side: the taste for cold can be and has been deemed unnatural. Even dangerous by some.
The Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460–377 bc) predicted dire consequences from giving in to it. He believed the body was a balance of humours—blood, phlegm, and black and yellow bile. The vital functions were controlled by spirits (of the heart, liver, and brain) manufactured from food. And he warned against introducing any sudden changes into this delicately balanced system. Hippocrates was convinced that his fellow citizens were throwing their bodies into perilous confusion by putting ice in their drinks. His warning cast a long shadow. Visiting Florence in 1581, Montaigne described how he put snow in his wineglass, as was the custom in the city—but only a little snow because he was feeling unwell. He was suffering from a migraine. He also had gallstones. Understandably, he was cautious about shocking his body, so he followed the golden mean.
As a scholar, Montaigne was well aware of references in classical Greek and Roman literature to the practice of icing water or wine. Montaigne knew contemporary history too. In 1568, Don Carlos, the sickly and ill-tempered, perhaps even mad, son of King Philip II of Spain, died. He’d been suffering from a high fever, during which time he poured ice water on the floor of his chamber so that he could lie naked in it. And, shortly before his death, he ate a highly spiced pastry and drank more than ten quarts of cold water. At the time, it was rumoured he'd been poisoned. But it was also suggested that he'd died from what Hippocrates had described as “suddenly throwing the body into a different state.”
Seizures, blindness, paralysis, heart attack, and apoplexy were all promised repercussions from the ingestion of cold. From the sixteenth to the seventeenth century, in the midst of a medical controversy over the benefits as opposed to the disastrous, even deadly effects of consuming a frosty drink, Europeans were understandably slow to come around to the idea of taking a chance.
Not the most supportive climate, it could be argued, for the introduction of ice cream. On the other hand, maybe the debate added to ice cream's appeal, making it more attractive, titillating, exclusive—especially to those risk takers who, like children, were prepared to lick ice and get it down them too. Adventures in extreme eating are not unusual. People eat blowfish. It's just that we're not accustomed to thinking of ice cream as dangerous.
Although the French were holdouts for a long time, by the end of the sixteenth century, Henry III was cooling his wine with ice and snow. And by the end of the seventeenth, beginning of the eighteenth, Louis XIV was enjoying a form of ice cream—Eau d'Apricots, for example, as described in a recipe from François Massialot's Nouvelle Instruction pour les Confitures, les Liqueurs, et les Fruits, published in 1692. It consisted of well-ripened apricots, peeled and pitted, cut into pieces, and placed in water that had been already boiled, with a small amount of sugar. Everything sat for a while; the flavour infused. And then the mixture was beaten and poured several times from one container into another—presumably, to blend and aerate—and filtered before it was frozen. The freezing method was equally primitive. No churning, just stirring at least once to prevent the mixture from turning into a skating rink.
The result was little more than sugar, water, and a little fruit, its texture coarse, pebbly, on the whole more like faintly flavoured ice than ice cream. Eaux glacées, early French ices—variously made from fruit (strawberries, raspberries, peaches); scented by flowers (violets, jasmine, jonquils)—were declared very hard indeed by later cooks and confectioners, who set out to improve them. Nevertheless, they proved popular and were served up to the king and the court in little goblets on their own special dishes—that was Massialot's suggestion, in the 1705 edition of his book, for the presentation of “a simple dessert for four people.” There was even a recipe for a chocolate eau glacée, to be prepared in winter when fruits and flowers were nowhere to be found and His Majesty had to settle for grated chocolate infused in sugar water.
Louis was a stickler for etiquette. Sometimes he dined in public, when all who were properly dressed could file past his table, and sometimes in private, when courtiers and servants were allowed to stand and watch. Only his brother, who was known as Monsieur, sat down to join him. Oh, to have been one of the watchers the moment Louis XIV—whom Saint-Simon, in his memoirs, described as a figure of great dignity—sampled his first ice. Maybe the king licked it at the outset. But there must have been a crackle and squeal when his teeth pierced an ice crystal or two. Clearly he enjoyed the confection: he had a pair of ice houses built at Versailles to supply his needs. But ice cream fit for a king had a long way to go.
Old recipes are like footprints in the snow: they indicate many paths taken and sometimes rejected. Recipes are translated and adapted. The writers of them travel too, learning techniques in other countries that they take home and domesticate or, settling abroad, put into action in their new home. It was long thought that Catherine de’ Medici—who, in 1533, married the duke d’Orléans, the future Henry II of France—took recipes for ices and a retinue of Italian confectioners along with her. But the first recipe in French doesn’t appear until 1674, in Nicholas Lemery’s Recueil de curiositéz rares et nouvelles de plus admirables effets de la nature, published in English, in 1694, as Modern Curiosities of Art and Nature.
As for the Italian connection, not until the same year, 1694, were recipes for sorbetti published, in Antonio Latini's second edition of Lo Scalco alla Moderna (The Modern Steward). The sorbetti, claimed Latini, were the marvellous consistency of sugar and snow. At least one French confectioner, L. Audiger, announced in his steward's handbook, La Maison Réglée (1692), that he'd been to Italy to study how to make them. Surprising, then, that the kind prepared for Louis XIV were reputed to have been so hard and inferior. It had to have been the novelty that delighted the king. At Marly, the king's favourite summer retreat, at the end of a grand fête celebrating the birth of his great-grandson, pale pink, green, yellow, and white ices were served. On that day, August 14, 1704, the fortunes of ice cream were surely rising.
Cinnamon, orange blossoms, coffee, muscat grapes, pistachios, pineapples, almonds, vanilla, cloves, and other waters distilled from seeds (fennel, for example) supplied the flavouring. Cream, milk, and egg yolks entered the mix.
The vocabulary for ingredients and measurements reveal different imaginations at work in different countries—and sometimes on the same recipe because, bluntly put, sometimes it was filched. Convention in the past was banditry; attribution was cavalier. The mighty Handel was accused by his contemporaries of stealing from other composers, prompting a certain John Potter to observe, in 1762, that a composer, like “the curious bee, sucks sweets from every flower.” What an apt gustatory metaphor. Merely substitute cook for composer and you have in your sights Vincente La Chapelle, chief cook to the duke of Chesterfield. He lifted major portions of his 1733 book, The Modern Cook, from Massialot's Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois (1691). As for the exceptionally popular Mrs. Hannah Glasse, she could plagiarize with the best of them. It’s been suggested that, in her second edition of The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1751), she was merely reporting what she'd been told or read about how to make her famous raspberry cream ice; the recipe is so sketchy. It seems Mrs. Glasse was determined to get into the game one way or another.
History has a messy and tangled underbrush, where competition is fierce and ambitions are at stake. But if the question of authorship is put aside, and if you judge by the number of recipes in cookbooks that came out in Europe during one small window of time—fifty years or so, from the end of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century—it's remarkable how quickly the appetite for the new treat was whetted and fulfilled.
The age of ice cream was well and truly under way, best illustrated by a 1768 cookbook entirely devoted to it, L'Art de Bien Faire les Glaces d'Office, by M. Emy—240 pages brimming with recipes for apricot, violet, rose, chocolate, and caramel (among others) ices as well as ice cream. “Food fit for the gods,” the reader was told. Emy included theological and philosophical explanations on various aspects of the process, including the freezing of water. But a most charming expression of the sublimity of ice cream lies at the very beginning of the book. The engraving on the frontispiece shows a pastoral scene so beloved of the time, in which angels—putti, actually, little cupid caterers—freeze and dole out portions into individual goblets, while one of their company flies heavenward, carrying a platter to the deities, two of whom recline on a cloud, awaiting their pleasure.
So there isn’t a single inventor, Ur-chef, Ur-cook, Ur-confectioner of ice cream. At least not in Europe. At least not on historical record. Instead, a bevy of individuals are associated with it, and their names have been largely forgotten, except by food historians. Still, Yeats talks about the “rage for order.” And since there's something in us that yearns for a story with a beginning as well as a middle, I've saved the most persistent myth about ice cream for the end. It purports to deal with origins. Then again, maybe it isn’t entirely a myth. I'm going to hedge my bets.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure-dome decree …” The famous opening lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan.” It's the very same pleasure-dome described by the thirteenth-century merchant and traveller Marco Polo, who claimed he'd actually seen it, been in it, marvelled at it. As the Venetian writes, the pleasure-dome was a magnificent reed palace set within an enclosed garden. The reed columns were topped by gilt dragons, whose tails wrapped around the columns and whose heads and massive paws supported the roof. The columns were fastened together by nails and silk cords, so that the great khan could erect and strike his summer palace at will. So much wondrous detail is provided in The Travels of Marco Polo, you'd think he would have reported if he'd seen anything as remarkable as ice cream being made in China. And yet, according to the myth, he's supposed to have witnessed exactly that, seen it sold on the streets there, furthermore, and carried the recipe back with him to Italy. The myth is specific in some tellings. It was a frozen-milk dessert, resembling modern sherbet, that he found. But no mention of such a treat exists in his Travels.
Marco Polo does testify to the drinking of kumiss, fermented milk that was part of the Mongol diet. And he explains that Kublai Khan bred a large number of snow-white horses, and that milk from the mares could be drunk only by people related to the khan or by warriors who won a victory for him. This custom of drinking mare's milk relates perhaps to a recipe dating back much earlier. The T'ang rulers in China (618–907 ad) took pleasure in a mysterious dish that was made from kumiss (from the milk of mares or, alternatively, cows, goats, or water buffalo) mixed with rice, camphor, dragon brain fragments, and dragon eyeball powder (whatever these last two ingredients may be). The mixture was placed in a metal container and submerged in an ice pool. But was this “clear wind rice,” as it’s been called, frozen or merely thoroughly chilled? Then there are the lines from the Sung dynasty poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206 ad):
It looks so greasy but still has a crisp texture,
It appears congealed and yet it seems to float,
Like jade, it breaks at the bottom of the dish;
As with snow, it melts in the light of the sun.
You'll find this poem in Frozen Desserts by Caroline Liddell and Robin Weir, who explain that it is a description of frozen milk. A description involving similes, I note, not steps in a recipe. Was this an early form of ice cream? Did ice cream in fact originate in China? Possibly...perhaps...probably.
The real question is, Whom does this founding myth serve? With regard to Marco Polo and his association with ice cream, I'd say the Italians stand to benefit. The myth has circulated in the West, not in China. I think it's a kind of ancestor story for Italians, who have been and still are makers of superlative ice cream. Antiquity provides them with a certain cachet; it's a tried-and-true formula. For example, Europeans desperately wanted to believe they were descended from Aeneas, who was supposed to have escaped the burning city of Troy when it fell to the Greeks. In his epic The Aeneid, Virgil made the case for the Romans and, therefore, for the Italians. France and England had their own versions, just so everybody could boast of a glamorous and heroic past. It was called “the matter of Troy.” So I'm considering the myth of Marco Polo and ice cream as “the matter of China.”
In a way, his travel narrative qualifies as myth. It was considered a fabrication in his own time and was nicknamed Il Milione (The Million Lies). And it's given modern Sinologists pause. Tea drinking and foot binding—crucial aspects of Chinese culture Marco Polo could be expected to have observed—are not given even a passing glance. He makes no reference to the Great Wall either. Marco Polo's name does not appear in the contemporary “Annals of the Empire” (Yuan Shih), in which the names of foreign visitors were recorded. These omissions have raised doubts whether he ever reached China at all, instead relying on others' accounts of it, simply appropriating or inventing whatever he chose.
But let's give Marco Polo a break. Medieval travel accounts were carryalls, accommodating as much fiction as fact, and anything that was included in them could easily have been plagiarized. The following description stayed with me from the moment I read it in the enormously popular fourteenth-century Mandeville's Travels. In Ethiopia, says the fictional John Mandeville, “there be folk that have but one foot … that foot is so large that it shades all the body against the sun, when they want to lie down and rest.” By comparison, Marco Polo's account of what he saw and experienced in the world beyond Europe is remarkably restrained.
He did have wiggle room, however, and he used it. Claiming to have arrived at Kublai Khan's summer palace, Xanadu (Shang-du), in 1275, he presents this scene of feasting there. The great khan's table is raised above floor level, and on the floor are “cups filled with milk”—kumiss, likely—“wine, and other delicious drinks.” Magicians make the cups rise up and fly to the khan and, when he has drunk from them, return dutifully to their place on the floor—as witnessed by ten thousand people, Marco Polo insists, and, therefore, “absolutely true.”
Now, any man who fashioned the above scene could have easily invented one involving the eating of ice cream. It would have been an astonishing revelation to his countrymen, especially when he told them that, in Kublai Khan's palace, ice cream flew through the air with the drinks. Merely that it was frozen through and through would have been enough to confound them. In addition, if he had the recipe in his pocket, he surely would have been their benefactor. But he did not and he was not. And, since he had no acquaintance with ice cream after all, later generations simply made it up. It's reasonable to assume that an anonymous Italian, with a lot to gain, invented the myth at a date unknown. And so the myth persists that Marco Polo delivered ice cream from the exotic East to the grateful West.
To get a Chinese perspective, I ask my acupuncturist, Yuhua Wang, “Do you eat ice cream in your country?”
“Ice cream's only for children,” she says.
There are few commercial freezers in China, and very few Chinese have home freezers. Even though they can buy ice cream, including Western brands, primarily in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, by and large they have a very different and more restricted experience of it.
“It's not like in the West. We give milk only to children,” she says. I can almost hear her wrinkle her nose. Unlike the Mongols, a high percentage of Chinese today are lactose intolerant.
I'm lying on my back with needles between my toes, in my ankles, knees, arms, neck, temples, beside my nostrils, and across the crown of my head. Yuhua trained in Beijing (Kublai Khan’s capital too, bearing the name of Cambalac, according to Marco Polo), and she can provide traditional, ancient terms for the healing work she does with needles, sometimes pressing them up and down, moving them back and forth, or twisting them. Needles are tigers. The energy is a fish taking the hook. She speaks in images as old as acupuncture, whose beginning is buried in legend. But she's silent when I ask her if she's ever heard the story that ice cream originated in the China of Kublai Khan. Eventually, trying to be helpful, she volunteers that she remembers many time-honoured folk tales about rice, not about ice cream.
In the realm of history, not myth, the fact is, Western ice cream was introduced into China in the twentieth century. In 1909, according to Ice and Refrigeration, an American trade journal, crowds in Canton gathered around a street vendor with a freezer. For a culture accustomed to iced rather than icy foods, American-style ice cream was a phenomenon.
Just imagine this scene taking place in Kublai Khan's summer pleasure-dome. You know enough now to separate truth from fable. The royal acupuncturist has worked on an injury the emperor sustained in falling from one of his snow-white mares. Rejoicing that he's not badly hurt, the court has assembled. The cups have flown, been emptied, and returned to their place on the floor. But the khan is feeling the heat—it's a sultry day; the kumiss has gone to his head. He strokes his sculpted, bifurcated beard and ponders.
Then he gives orders to his royal chef to bring in a batch of that … that T'ang delicacy … what's it called? … Oh yes, “clear wind rice,” the milk dessert that floats like jade and melts in the sun. The great khan is feeling generous. He commands that enough be provided for his warriors, including the Venetian who's recently entered his service.
As for Marco Polo, he seems far more preoccupied with the paper money that's been instituted throughout the empire than he is with its frozen delicacy. But a merchant would be thus preoccupied. In fact, Marco Polo is astonished. He's never seen paper money before, and he tells himself to remember the look and feel of it, how light it is to carry. He completely ignores the importance of the imperial ice stores, from which ice is brought to chill the food and drinks he's been enjoying, unaware that ice has been used to cool houses of the court as long ago as the T'ang dynasty and probably longer. He is oblivious to the fact that the Chinese have been collecting and storing ice for thousands of years. It's recorded in a poem from around 1100 bc in the collection of food canons (Shih Ching), and it's another of the notable omissions in The Travels of Marco Polo.
As Thoreau observed, ice is “a fit subject for contemplation.” He was intrigued enough to wonder why a bucket of water could turn rancid but, frozen, “remains sweet forever,” as he watched men come to Walden Pond in successive Januarys, 1846 and 1847, bringing farm tools to harvest ice that looked to him like “solidified azure.” They marked and carved it, divided it into cakes, ten thousand tons' worth. They stacked and covered it with hay and boards to keep the air out.
“At first,” he wrote in Walden, “it looked like a vast blue fort or Valhalla; but when they began to tuck the coarse meadow hay in the crevices, and this became covered with rime and icicles, it looked like a venerable moss-grown and hoary ruin, built of azure-tinted marble, the abode of Winter, that old man we see in the almanac.”
A remarkable ice house, according to Thoreau, that, even though it had no roof and was exposed to the sun, didn’t thaw completely until September 1848. The icemen took what they wanted and shipped it off, abandoning the rest for nature to deal with in its own inimitable way. Slowly, the “vast blue fort” would melt down to its foundations, hay and boards left behind to rot. When Thoreau looked out from the cabin he built on Walden Pond, the harvesting of ice and snow was at its peak commercially, but it was also coming to an end. A little more than fifty years later, in 1917, the first electric refrigerators were being manufactured in France and the United States. Nature was bypassed. That scene on Walden Pond would not happen again.
Some things pass, and others remain the same. I heard once that one-third of the earth's surface is covered with ice. Throughout history and some of prehistory, human beings have harvested it from mountains, lakes, rivers, and ponds, hauled and stored and used it to refresh, cool, even medicate themselves. And they've told tales about it. You could argue that ice cream was just a by-product of more serious “contemplation,” the study of cold, the science of freezing.
But science can't do justice to the taste for cold, the appeal of ice cream that does not pass, the sybaritic moment of consumption when cold turns to sweetness and, warmed by the body, slides down the throat, to the most cordial of receptions. The cycle of the seasons turns from winter to summer with every bite, over and over again. Ice cream is the release of flavour captured ingeniously, vivaciously, in ice. That's what the taste for cold is all about.