While the Chesapeake cannot claim to be the birthplace of ice cream, that honor arguably goes to China where the earliest known process for making that delectable treat was developed around the 13th century. Our region does deserve high praise for its role in originating and promoting an American love affair with the always-popular treat. The earliest known record of ice cream served in the American colonies occurred in Maryland in 1744 and is attributed to the wife of Governor Bladen. Additionally, founding father and Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, set the world on fire with his devotion to ice cream and is even credited with penning the oldest known American recipe for it. And then finally, the Chesapeake region sealed its fate as the ice cream capital of the United States when Jacob Fussell, considered to be the “father of the [American] ice cream industry,” opened the first large scale ice cream factory in the U.S. in Baltimore in 1851.
In an era without refrigeration, ice cream was quite the status symbol because it relied on ice stored in an icehouse, a feature only available to the wealthy. These structures were built underground where cool temperatures could be maintained year-round; the ice was also insulated with a covering of grass or sawdust. Though an unnecessary extravagance, many icehouses were nevertheless built in the Chesapeake region in the 18th and 19th centuries; the desire for ice cream was most likely an effective motivator. Thomas Jefferson had two icehouses, and his visitors to Monticello remarked at the frequency with which ice cream was served there, even as late as October. Jefferson is particularly remembered for shocking and astonishing his guests at a state dinner where ice cream was served baked in pastry (an early form of a baked Alaska).
Similarly, America’s First Lady of Ice Cream, Dolley Madison, “set astir an Air of Expectancy among her Guests” when she served “a large, shining [pink] dome” of ice cream to guests at the second inaugural ball for her husband, James Madison. The description of the “pink dome” is particularly significant because the visual appeal of ice creams dyed all the colors of the rainbow was very important to its appeal in those days. Saffron for yellow, spinach juice for green, cochineal for varying shades of red, and syrup of violets for purple were the most widely used food dyes. Flavor, though important, often took second place to the visual presentation.
Historic ice cream flavors varied widely with assorted berries, citrus fruits, pineapple, cinnamon, almonds, ginger, assorted nuts, coffee and chocolate being quite popular. Surprisingly, vanilla, a flavor derived from a wild plant native to the tropical regions of the Americas, was not used widely in early British North America even though Thomas Jefferson is often credited with popularizing it. Vanilla did not actually become popular until after 1841 when Edmond Albius, a man born into slavery on an East African island, developed the first effective method to hand-pollinate the plant. This discovery enabled Madagascar and other parts of the world to become renowned for producing vanilla, making access to it easier and more affordable thus sparking a global love affair with the flavor.
In addition to those mentioned above, some historic ice cream flavors might be considered a bit unusual by today’s standards. Asparagus, artichoke, brown bread, chestnut, noyau made from apricot kernels, ground rice, grape, rosewater, orange-flower water, maize, pear, tea and even parmesan cheese, are all flavors that were associated with ice cream in British and American cookbooks from the 18th and 19th centuries. Why not commemorate the Chesapeake’s role in America’s love affair with ice cream by treating your tastebuds to the following c.1807 recipe adaptation for parmesan cheese ice cream.
Parmesan Ice Cream
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
In a saucepan, whisk together the sugar and water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until it measures about 1/2 cup.
Whisk together the eggs in a large bowl and set aside.
In a large saucepan, whisk together the cream and 1/2 cup of the simple syrup; heat over medium-high heat until the temperature reaches 175º F. Add about 1/4 cup of the hot mixture to the eggs and stir. Then, add the remaining eggs to the hot cream in the saucepan a small amount at a time, whisking as you work.
Return the pan to the stove and cook on low heat until the custard reaches about 160º F and coats the back of a spoon. Then add the grated cheese.
Allow the mixture to cool in the refrigerator for several hours or even overnight.
Follow ice cream maker manufacturer’s directions to make the ice cream.
Joyce, a food historian, can be contacted through www.atasteofhistory.net
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