Our Founding Fathers helped create a nation of ice cream addicts. Going back to George Washington, they spared no expense or hardship in making and serving frozen treats. While many 18th-century foods have fallen into obscurity (eel pie, anyone?), ice cream remains a dominant force.
Even in times of political strife, Americans are united in their ice cream fixation. The average American devours 45 pints per year, which equates to about $10 billion.
We can thank Washington for America’s early interest in the treat. Renowned for his sweet tooth, Washington was hooked when he got his first taste of ice cream in the late 18th century. It’s believed Washington may have been introduced to ice cream by Norborne Berkeley, 4th Baron Botetourt, who was the royal governor of Virginia between 1768 and 1770. The first couple bought pricey ice cream-making equipment and fancy dishes and served it at soirees in New York City and Philadelphia. A detailed list of ice cream paraphernalia — such as a 309-piece service that included “2 Iceries Complete,” 12 “ice plates,” and 36 “ice pots” from the estate at Mount Vernon — reads like a prototype of a Williams-Sonoma catalogue.
During the early years of our country, though, ice cream was for the elite. Most Americans had never even heard of it. But food trends had a way of catching on, even centuries before Instagram. Thomas Jefferson, who first tasted it in France, helped popularize ice cream by recording the first recipe for it in the United States. The ingredients were simple enough — six egg yolks, a half-pound of sugar, two bottles of good cream, and one vanilla bean — but cooks had to go through an arduous, 18-step process and use a little muscle. The ice cream maker hadn’t yet been invented; Jefferson recommended making it in a primitive “sorbetiere,” which consisted of a covered pail with a handle, and churning it by hand in the ice for 10 minutes before sticking it in a mold to set. Jefferson had ice houses built at Monticello in 1802 to preserve perishable foods such as butter, and he liked to have plenty on hand to make ice cream.
Lest you think modern-day chefs are the first to churn the likes of fish sauce and foie gras into ice cream, know that first lady Dolley Madison had a taste for more extreme flavors two centuries ago. One of her favorites was ice cream made with fresh Potomac oysters. She toned things down a bit for her husband’s second inaugural ball by serving plain ice cream with strawberries.
There were, of course, the inevitable gaffes when dealing with a new food item. Assuming that a pyramid of cake was made out of ice cream, a White House guest of President Martin Van Buren “cut away” at it vigorously with a spoon. In the process, he “overthrew the whole structure,” according to Anne Cooper Funderburg in “Chocolate, Strawberry and Vanilla.”
Unfortunately, eating milky desserts could be dangerous in the days before pasteurization. Historians still argue about whether President Zachary Taylor died after gorging on ice milk and frozen cherries during a Fourth of July party in 1850.
But thankfully, a few inventions made ice cream safer and more convenient in the early 20th century. Better refrigeration meant less spoilage. And the truck replaced the horse-drawn wagon as a means of distribution. Another new ice cream delivery system, the waffle cone, hit the scene at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, although there’s still a raging debate about who should get credit for it.
Ice cream even became a rite of passage for newcomers to the United States. Immigrants who landed on Ellis Island were often given a scoop during their first meal in the States to help them get acclimated, but sometimes this gesture of goodwill backfired. In 1902, several arrivals from Italy, waylaid on the island during the Easter holiday, were alarmed by the strange temperature and texture of this unfamiliar foodstuff and asked for it to be “warmed up” according to the New York Times.
Passion for ice cream reached a new intensity during Prohibition when bibulous men were urged to visit the soda fountain instead of the saloon. In the process, they successfully substituted one vice for another; in 1920, our nation’s first year without (legal) booze, consumers wolfed down 260 million gallons of ice cream.
The modern era only increased our national fervor for frozen treats — and American presidents continued to do their part. In 1969, while en route to a historical meeting with South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu, President Richard M. Nixon visited Hawaii, where he became obsessed with macadamia nut ice cream. Nixon asked to have a three-gallon pack sent by air to the White House. He had another three-gallon pack sent from Hawaii 10 months later when he went to award the Apollo 13 astronauts the Medal of Freedom. The flavor was available only on the West Coast and Hawaii, so the manager of the now-defunct Alpha Beta supermarket in San Clemente, Calif., used to get a heads-up when Nixon was coming to town so he would have a supply of the flavor on hand.
In the following years, the Cold War lingered, and so did the presidential preoccupation with frozen desserts. In 1984, Ronald Reagan declared July as National Ice Cream month. The same year he joked he was “outlawing Russia forever,” he said in his proclamation that “ice cream is a nutritious and wholesome food, enjoyed by over 90 percent of the people in the United States.”
Three decades later, Vice President Joe Biden seemed to have taken that proclamation to heart and made ice cream eating a patriotic duty. Biden, who famously ate ice cream with Jimmy Fallon, recently had a flavor named after him at Cornell University. Biden dubbed himself the “ice cream guy” and has enjoyed a cone at many small-town shops across the country. He proudly declared his addiction to the owners of Penny Ice Creamery in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2010. “I am a genuine lover of ice cream. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. But I eat a lot of ice cream.”
There’s even a proven tie-in between political parties and flavors. Republicans favor chocolate, and Democrats like vanilla, according to a 2011 Harris Poll. President Trump apparently loves cherry vanilla, and he orders two scoops of ice cream for his pies, while his guests are expected to be content with just one. Trump also has an ice cream parlor named after himself in Trump Tower. One Yelper, who may have a political bias, gave the flavors a scathing review, saying the scoops are “expensive for a small portion of ice cream that tastes like toothpaste and cleaning supplies.”
Although it’s probably never a good idea to discuss politics while eating — even eating ice cream — in these heated political times, cooling down with a cone has never been a better idea. This summer we may agree on little else.
Amy Ettinger is the author of “Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America” (Dutton, 2017).