A History Of Ice Cream Innovations, From Ancient China To NASA Astronauts And Dippin' Dots

on July 19 2013 4:31 PM
icecreamsign
Ice cream's history reaches back all the way to ancient China. Flickr via Creative Commons/Joelk75

In summer, many a young man’s (and young woman’s) mind turns to thoughts of ice cream. Whether you like it with hot fudge or caramel, in a cup or in a cone, know that this summertime treat has a storied history!

2,000 BC: Chinese aristocrats ate a kind of frozen syrup around 4,000 years ago, according to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s “A History of Food.” Snow and saltpeter (potassium nitrate, a major ingredient in gunpowder) were poured over containers of syrup to freeze the syrup more easily.

330 BC: When he wasn't out conquering empires, Alexander the Great was said to have favored kicking back with a bit of snow flavored with honey and nectar.

1780s: U.S. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson wrote down his favorite recipe for vanilla ice cream, preserved to this day by the Library of Congress. If you’ve got “2 bottles of good cream and 12 egg yolks" handy, you might be able to replicate it!

1890: Evanston, Ill. passed a blue law prohibiting drug stores from selling ice cream sodas. The soda jerks got around the rule by pouring syrup and other toppings over ice cream. The “Sunday soda” was later renamed the “sundae,” so as not to offend religious sensibilities, according to the Evanston public library. Several other towns also claim to be the sundae’s birthplace -- an Ithaca, N.Y., pharmacy placed ads touting its “Cherry Sundays" and its strawberry and chocolate Sundays, in 1892.

1930s: The origin story of soft serve is a bit disputed. Tom Carvel, founder of his eponymous ice cream brand, supposedly got the idea for soft serve ice cream in 1934 after his ice cream truck got a flat tire, forcing him to pull over and sell his quickly melting stock to drivers passing by. By 1936, according to the company, he had developed a secret soft-serve formula. Dairy Queen founder J.F. McCullough also lays claim to inventing soft serve, which he supposedly developed in 1938 in Illinois.

There’s a popular myth that the late U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher helped invent soft-serve ice cream during her pre-politics career as a research chemist. But soft-serve started up in the U.S. about a decade before Thatcher set foot in the food laboratory. Plus there’s little evidence that her work with food conglomerate J. Lyons & Company was actually that instrumental -- at best, she was working there when the company was trying to refine existing British soft-serve recipes that would work well in U.S.-made machines.

1968: Apollo 7 astronauts snacked on freeze-dried ice cream while they orbited the Earth. But the treat, developed by Whirlpool Corp. under a NASA contract, is a bit difficult to eat in space since it crumbles easily. However, the hardy “astronaut ice cream” lives on in museum gift shops and survivalist compounds.

1988: Microbiologist Curt Jones flash froze an ice cream mix in liquid nitrogen to create little beads of frozen treats he dubbed “Dippin’ Dots.” You won’t find these at the grocery store, since Dippin’ Dots need to be stored at extremely cold temperatures (-40 degrees Fahrenheit) for the dots to keep their spherical shape. The treat is a mainstay of carnivals, shopping malls and theme parks like Six Flags or Knott’s Berry Farm.

Dippin’ Dots filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November 2011, and the company was sold to father-and-son energy executives Mark and Scott Fischer in May 2012. Jones has stayed on as CEO.

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