Who doesn’t love ice cream? But also, who invented this tasty frozen treat? We don’t know for sure — here’s what we do know.

Ice cream.

Image via Pixabay.

The first brush Europeans had with something resembling ice-cream was likely around the 1300s, when explorer Marco Polo returned to Italy from China. Along with his wild stories of adventure and exotic lands, Polo also bore the recipe for a dessert we’d call sherbet or sorbet. Later on, this recipe likely evolved into the ice cream we know and love today sometime during the 16th century. It really came into its own during the 20th century, with the advent of new refrigeration techniques that allowed for the mass production of ice cream.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves — let’s not start eating this treat from the cone up, as it were. The story of ice-cream (what we know of it, at least) starts, surprisingly enough, in Antiquity.

Ice Cream Age

To the best of our knowledge, ice cream first reared its refreshing head in the Persian empire of yore. We don’t know, for sure, who first came up with the idea or when. However, around 500 B.C., we have evidence of the Persians mixing ice with grape juice, fruit juice, or other pleasantly-tasting flavors to produce an ice-cream-like treat. Needless to say, during that time and especially in that place (the Persian Empire stretched from India to Egypt and Turkey, so it was a very hot place generally) this delicacy was very hard and very expensive to produce, making it a noble or royal dish.

Their ice cream more closely resembled what we’d call sorbet today in texture and taste. Still, it was highly-regarded due to its scarcity and was probably greatly enjoyed in the Persian heat by those who could afford it.

Eventually, the Persian Empire met its maker in the form of one Alexander the Great, who waged war on them for about ten years. Warmaking is hot, tiring stuff, and accounts from Alexander’s campaigns say he took a particular liking to the local “fruit ices”, which are described as a honey-sweetened dish chilled using snow. The Persian dessert further evolved through time and was inherited by Iranians in the form of faloodeh, a traditional chilled dessert. Following the Muslim conquest of Persia in 651 AD, the Arab world also adopted this dish.


This is sherbet.
Image credits Elizabeth Rose.

Likely through Alexander’s phalangites returning home from their campaigns, ice cream was gradually introduced to early Western societies, eventually finding its way to the Emperor’s court in Rome. Icecreamhistory cites “tales from this period” telling of “armies of runners, who carried ice from mountains to big Roman cities during summers”, showcasing how appreciated the dish became among Roman nobles and Emperors. Emperor Nero is recorded as being a big fan of the dessert.

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Ice cream R&D was going strong in China and Arab countries during the 9th to 11th centuries. Around this time, confectioners started experimenting with milk-based ice creams, more akin to the ones we enjoy today. Their ideas slowly made their way to Europe on the backs of traders and wanderers such as Marco Polo. The strong Mediterranean economic presence of the Italian city-states at the time, especially their trade with Muslim countries, put them in a unique position to draw on these ideas, which is why the country has such a strong tradition of ice cream making to this day.

The fact that ice cream was definitely still rare and expensive to produce at this time likely helped fuel its development, alongside that of refrigeration techniques, as there was a lot of money to be made in the business at the time. However, it also kept ice cream from becoming the widely-enjoyed treat that it is today. With a hefty price tag, and in the absence of any means of effectively storing ice or snow, it remained a very exclusive dish up until the 17th or 18th century in Europe.

The Icedustrial Revolution

There is some debate as to where ice cream first made its European debut. “Cream Ice” as it was known there at the time, made its way to England sometime in the 16th century. During the 17th century, it was a regular fixture at the table of Charles I. France got its first taste of the desert in 1553 after Catherine de Medici (Italian) wed Henry II of France.

However, everybody seems to agree that ice cream was first made available to the general public in 1660, when a Sicilian man named Procopio Cutò introduced a recipe of frozen milk, cream, butter, and eggs (gelato) at Café Procope (called the oldest café in Paris), which he owned. Procopio is credited as the inventor of gelato.

New production and refrigeration methods allowed ice and ice cream to be produced in greater quantities, and cheaper than ever before. The dessert made its way to America on the backs of these technologies in the mid-17th century, and after a few decades became available to the general public. Around 1850, large commercial entities started dabbling in the production and sale of ice cream, which further brought costs down and allowed more people than ever to enjoy the frozen treat.

The biggest single boon for ice cream was the advent of commercially-available, continuous electrical refrigeration after World War I. The ability to store ice cream for long periods of time without damaging it practically gave the industry wings; production during this time rose hundredfold, especially in the United States that escaped the war unravaged, which brought prices down to unheard-of-before lows.

Ice cream truck.

And to new neighborhoods.
Image credits Leonie Schoppema.

Ice cream also gained an unexpected boost on global markets during World War II, when both flash-frozen and dried ice creams became part of the official US Army combat rations. These were distributed to US soldiers in every and all theater of operations: Europe, North Africa, East Asia, and the Pacific fronts. In fact, ice cream played a central role in keeping not only US soldiers’ calorie intake up, but also their morale and fighting spirit. An article in The Atlantic that looks at the role of ice cream in the American war effort during World War II (it’s a very good piece, do give it a read) cites an editorial in the May 1918 issue of The Ice Cream Review, a monthly trade magazine, that shows where this treat fit into military life during the first world war.

“In this country every medical hospital uses ice cream as a food and doctors would not know how to do without it. But what of our wounded and sick boys in France? Are they to lie in bed wishing for a dish of good old American ice cream? They are up to the present, for ice cream and ices are taboo in France,” The Ice Cream Review wrote. “It clearly is the duty of the Surgeon General or some other officer to demand that a supply be forthcoming.”

You could chalk those lines up to industry lobbying — and it’s probably exactly what that was. But by 1942, the situation had changed dramatically. Whether as a result of lobbying, of grassroots support from GIs, or simply out of a desire to give those on the front the best comforts one could realistically provide them with, ice cream was often seen on American lines.

When the U.S.S. Lexington, the second-largest aircraft carrier in the US Navy at the time, had to be scuttled to avoid capture by Japanese forces, “the crew abandoned ship — but not before breaking into the freezer and eating all the ice cream. Survivors describe scooping ice cream into their helmets and licking them clean before lowering themselves into the Pacific,” the article explains.

“The U.S. Navy spent $1 million in 1945 converting a concrete barge into a floating ice-cream factory to be towed around the Pacific, distributing ice cream to ships incapable of making their own,” Matt Siegel wrote for The Atlantic. “It held more than 2,000 gallons of ice cream and churned out 10 gallons every seven minutes.”

“Not to be outdone, the U.S. Army constructed miniature ice-cream factories on the front lines and began delivering individual cartons to foxholes. This was in addition to the hundreds of millions of gallons of ice-cream mix they manufactured annually, shipping more than 135 million pounds of dehydrated ice cream in a single year.”

Immediately after the war, ice cream was perceived as an American invention. It’s not hard to understand why — when most of the industrialized world was bombed halfway back to the stone age in not one but two massive conflicts, frozen dessert wasn’t high on anybody else’s to-do list. Hollywood also helped promote ice cream, which was regularly included in movies and its overarching culture. The icy appeal of ice cream proved irresistible, and as the world dragged itself out of the rubble and horror of war, other countries started churning out their own. This period also saw a great deal of experimentation with and development of new types of ice cream, most notably the soft ice cream and sundae varieties that are highly-appreciated to this day.