The Real Scoop

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is
Tuesday, June 27, 2006


The Delicious History

By Marilyn Powell

Overlook. 250 pp. $19.95

The history of ice cream is fraught with mysteries, none more impenetrable than its origins. Was it invented by Nero (not at all likely) or the Syrians (possibly) or the Italians (they'd like us to think so)? Marco Polo, according to Marilyn Powell, is said to have seen "a frozen-milk dessert, resembling modern sherbet," sold on the streets of China, "and carried the recipe back with him to Italy." But "did ice cream in fact originate in China? Possibly . . . perhaps . . . probably."

Still, the origins of ice cream unquestionably are of interest, and it would be nice if someone eventually figures out what they are, but what matters is ice cream itself, a "guilty pleasure" indulged in by uncountable millions all around the world. It comes in heaven knows how many flavors -- "according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Heladeria Coromoto, an ice-cream parlour in Merida, Venezuela . . . sells more than seven hundred flavours as of this writing" -- but whatever the taste, there's one constant: Ice cream is cold. Powell writes:

"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."

Powell is something of an ice cream sentimentalist who insists that most ice cream was better in the good old days. Unfortunately, she's right. "If what sticks in the memory is personality, colour, incident, accident, all of that is banished from the commercial making and distribution of ice cream," as a visit to the freezer section of any American supermarket will make appallingly plain. Every once in a while you'll find something that actually can pass as ice cream -- yes, Ben & Jerry's, and H?agen-Dazs, too -- but mostly it's chemical stuff, much of it masquerading as "lite" or "lo fat" or some other label betraying that it isn't really ice cream at all.

Ice cream is like butter: something that should be eaten infrequently but in its real rather than its watered-down state. Sherbet is a naturally low-fat and low-calorie indulgence that can be enjoyed without serious risk of enhanced avoirdupois, but real ice cream contains at least three ingredients -- cream, sugar and eggs -- that are guaranteed to make that spare tire a bit less spare. Its pleasures are to be savored, but by the scoop rather than the quart. This is an aspect of ice cream -- enjoy it, but don't overdo it -- that we've lost sight of during the regime of the Food Police, and Powell performs a useful service in reminding us of it.

Another service she performs is to remind us of ice cream's powerful hold on memory and nostalgia. The associations it can carry can be remarkably, unexpectedly strong. Those of a certain age will recall with immense happiness the drugstore soda fountains that flourished before and immediately after World War II, ultimately to die off as "the corner drugstore was replaced by the mall." Small children were taken to soda fountains for Sunday treats, teenagers ogled each other over banana splits or black and whites, wannabe movie stars showed off their gams from swirling drugstore stools. Then there was Good Humor:

"Good Humor men rang their bells. They were trained to deal with children. By the 1930s, they were also trained to deal with adults, raising their caps to ladies and saluting the men who'd come to buy. Their trucks and tricycles and pushcarts were spotless. They polished their shoes and took care of their nails. They were schooled in hygiene, traffic safety, and sales, a veritable army in white, the colour of milk. . . . In the 1940s, in magazines, on radio shows, in comic strips and movies, the Good Humor men were celebrated as upright American heroes."

All of which is true, but otherwise Powell gets only part of the way to fulfilling the promise of her title and subtitle. Though no one who sets out to write a history of anything should be required to obey rigid rules of organization and narrative, this book verges on incoherence as it wanders from subject to subject, often with no discernible connection. She has a good deal of interesting information, but she provides it in a hazy way that too often leaves the reader wondering where he's been and where she's going. "Ice Cream: The Delicious History" inadvertently makes the point that there's much to be said for linear history because Powell provides so little of it, creating more confusion than clarity.

So the reader limps along from one point to the next. You learn that one of the most famous ice cream dishes got its name from the late 19th century temperance movement, which pressured drugstores into refusing to serve carbonated water on Sundays, so they served straight ice cream topped with syrup and a maraschino cherry and called it an "ice cream sundae"; that Queen Victoria "was inordinately fond of ice cream"; that the ice cream cone may (or may not) have been invented by a Syrian who made "a kind of crisp waffle" called a zalabia and rolled one "into a cone and added ice cream to it"; that "in the late 1820s, an African-American named Augustus Jackson left his position as cook at the White House and moved to Philadelphia, where he started his own catering business and distributed his own ice cream to local street vendors, many of whom were also African- American."

You'll also learn a whole lot more than presumably you want to about Marilyn Powell, who obviously finds herself endlessly fascinating and barges into the story at every available opportunity. You may think that a session with her acupuncturist is utterly irrelevant to the subject at hand, but here she is: "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." And: "Okay, I admit that science worries me. I don't take to it easily, preferring to deal with the world through words."

Even in this age of literary and journalistic self-infatuation, this one takes the cake. From reading "Ice Cream: The Delicious History," you might be tempted to the belief that the history of ice cream and the story of Marilyn Powell are intimately and inextricably connected. You would be very, very wrong.

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