Here's the real scoop

Never too young, late, old or early for this dessert! Read as the author heaps on cultural, historical and accidental flavours of the universal favourite, ice cream

Do you believe in God? A peaceful, merciful, affectionate, loving entity that takes special care of its special creation on earth, man? I do! And I have ample proof of this Supreme Loving one – right here, in the waffle cone I’m clutching in my hand. Yes, the proof is ice cream, for only an entity that truly loved man would have made this delicious concoction.

Just what is it that makes ice cream such a treat to the senses? Well, first of all, it is made of all those ingredients that we human beings have evolved to crave: sugar, fat, water and air. Then there is the freeze of the tongue, the cold hit that jolts the taste buds awake and causes the taste to linger. And let’s not forget the mouth-feel – the silky texture that simply slides over the tongue and down the throat without any effort. Finally, the flavours – the fruity, nutty, boozy, spicy – pretty much whatever titillates your taste buds and causes a happy riot in your brain. What is not to love?

“You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy ice cream… and that’s kind of the same thing,” said a wise woman (or man). But skeptics may disagree. “Oh, come on,” they say, “Get real. As if eating ice cream can really make you happy!” Well, there was a study done at the Institute of Psychiatry in London by neuroscientists who scanned the brains of people eating vanilla ice cream. They used a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine to watch blood flow to activated parts of the brain. Their finding: just one spoonful has an immediate effect on the parts of the brain that are activated when people enjoy themselves, including the orbito-frontal cortex or the ‘processing’ area at the front of the brain. In the words of Don Darling of Unilever, “Just one spoonful (of ice cream) lights up the happy zones of the brain in clinical trials.” So, yes, ice cream can actually make you happy, by acting on your brain.

These effects might be due to the effect of fat on the brain. Studies have shown that ingestion of fatty foods may reduce the intensity of the brain’s responses to sad emotions by almost half. What is really significant here is that this is the same reduction achieved with the use of any prescription antidepressant! So, why use antidepressants which have weird side-effects when you can eat a scoop (or more) of your favourite ice cream which has only one side effect, obesity, which you’re dealing with anyway, right?

Now, if you were to think about it, of course, with a bowl of your favourite ice cream in hand, you will agree that the invention of this dish was inevitable. Our caveman grandpas and grandmas, sweltering in the close confines of their dwellings in summer, must have thought, “I can’t take this infernal heat. I could really do with some of that white stuff we got when it was cold.” From there on, it was just a matter of time.

The origins of this dish are as murky as a bowl of melted mixed flavours. There are Biblical passages that refer to King Solomon enjoying iced drinks during the harvest season. So did old Alexander, you know, the Great one — he liked icy drinks flavoured with honey or wine. And Nero, Emperor of Rome, who was known for his decadence, had ‘ice houses’, where ice harvested by slaves from nearby mountains was preserved in deep, straw-covered pits.

The first to eat a ‘frozen milk-like confection’ were the emperors of the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) of China. It was made with cow, goat or buffalo milk that was heated with flour and flavoured with camphor. The mixture was placed in metal tubes and kept in an ice pool until frozen. Incidentally, that is also how kulfi, our Indian ice cream, used to be made before the days of refrigeration.

Records from medieval times show that Arabs enjoyed sherbets, chilled drinks flavoured with cherry, pomegranate or quince, a fruit like apple or pear. Over the years, the concoction travelled to Europe and sugar got added, creating the sorbetto or the sorbet. The first person to write down a recipe for sorbetto and creating a milk-based sorbet was Antonio Latini, a man who worked for the Spanish viceroy in Naples. This is considered the first official ‘ice cream’. Ices also began to be stirred during freezing, which introduced air and created a fluffier texture.

Singled out & proud

An interesting story is told of Charles II of England. During a Feast of St George banquet, only one plate of ice cream was served. Only the head table got it, and others could just watch and wonder. The king was so delighted with the scrumptious dessert that he offered the confectioner, named DeMirco, 500 pounds a year to keep the recipe a secret. Whether or not this story is true, we can safely assume that De Mirco didn’t keep the secret.

Ice cream arrived on American shores with the immigrants, and quickly caught on. In 1790, the first ice cream parlour opened in New York. During the summer of that year, George Washington spent $200 on this indulgence. Dolly Madison served a strawberry ice cream at the inauguration of her husband’s presidency in 1813. The invention of the hand-cranked freezer by Nancy Johnson, a woman from New Jersey, in 1843, in which the ice cream mix is agitated in a bed of salt and ice allowed the family favourite to be made at home. Commercial production was begun by Jacob Fussell, the father of American ice cream industry, in Baltimore, Maryland in 1852. The continuous freezer was developed by Clarence Vogt in 1926, following which mass production of ice cream took off. Many other innovations have since been made, the latest being flash-frozen ice cream made using liquid nitrogen, introduced by Chef Heston Blumenthal. Dippin’ dots is another form of ice cream also made by flash-freezing using liquid nitrogen.

In 1874, Robert McCay Green, a sweet cream soda vendor at an exhibition in Philadelphia, stumbled upon the idea of serving carbonated soda water with ice cream, inventing the ice cream soda. This became extremely popular with the public. However, the clergy frowned on this ‘frilly’ concoction being sold on Sundays. So vendors drizzled syrup on the scoops instead, and the ice cream ‘sundae’ was born. Or so they say!

Ice cream became really popular in the United States during World War II. Prohibition and the Great Depression were taking their toll on the morale of the country, which was ripe for a new comfort food. Ice cream became an integral part of the diet, and even a source of patriotism, so much so that the US Navy built a floating ice cream factory in a converted barge on the Pacific. And American fighter pilots in Britain would make ice cream while on duty by placing the prepared ice cream mixture in a large can and anchoring it to the rear gunner’s compartment of a Flying Fortress fighter plane. By the time it returned after flying over enemy territory at high altitudes, it was well-shaken and nicely frozen… provided it returned!

By the way, there is another institution that needs to be saluted. It is of course, the no-waste container that the ice cream can be eaten in, the ice cream cone. The story goes that in the World’s Fair held at St Louis in the USA in 1904, a Syrian waffle-maker named Ernest E Hamwi was unable to sell his wares as the day was terribly hot and no one wanted to eat hot waffles. However, the ice cream stall next to him was seeing a lot of customers and ran out of dishes. So Hamwi rolled his waffles to make cones that could serve as containers, and history was made. The ice-cream cone celebrated its 100th birthday in 2004. Here’s a little bit of information: the chocolate bit at the bottom is not just as a nice treat; it stops the wafer-tip from becoming soggy and falling off.

Now that ice cream is so cheap and popular, there is no country on earth where it isn’t eaten. But which one eats the largest quantity? America eats 2.7 billion litres of the stuff a year. The largest consumer of ice cream, however, is China at 4.3 billion litres. Norway has the highest per capita rate, at 9.8 litres per person. And yes, predictably, vanilla and chocolate are the top two flavours preferred on this planet. Vanilla is like the ultimate partner, it goes with everything – fruit, hot pie, cake, soda, hot gajar ka halwa, syrupy gulab jamun, with other flavours of ice cream, you name it. And chocolate is… well… it’s chocolate. No explanations needed.

Count the colours

But these are not the only two flavours, not by a large margin. Every country has evolved its own unique flavour of this dessert. Turkey’s own flavour is Dondurma, made with salep, a wild orchid root that gives a chewy, stretchy texture. Since salep is illegal to export, you can enjoy dondurma only in Turkey. Mochi in Japan is made with a pounded rice paste that is non-melty, wrapped around ice cream. Germans love an ice cream sundae called Spaghetti Eis which looks like a bowl of spaghetti, with a strawberry puree red sauce and coconut flakes or grated almonds that look like parmesan cheese.

In rural America, snow cream made with fresh snow mixed with sugar, milk and vanilla is popular with children. And in the chill of Alaska, Akutaq, an ice cream made with whipped animal fat from seals, moose or caribou, mixed with berries and bits of meat, is very popular. Yummy-mummy!

There is the Italian gelato, which is denser and milkier than traditional ice cream, contains less fat. In Israel? Try Halva ice cream with sesame seeds mashed into a sugar-and-honey paste. Iran loves its Faloodeh, made with thin vermicelli noodles frozen with corn starch, rose water and lime juice.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget our own kulfi. This dessert probably originated in the 16th century in the opulent palaces of the Mughal Empire. The use of dense evaporated milk was already popular in India. The Mughals flavoured it with pistachios and saffron, packed it into metal cones and immersed them in a slurry containing Himalayan ice and saltpeter. Kulfi is made by evaporating sweetened and flavoured milk over a slow flame with constant stirring to half its volume. This increases its fat, protein and lactose density. This rich mix is frozen in tight sealed moulds and submerged in ice mixed with salt. The ice/salt mix with its submerged kulfi moulds is placed in earthenware pots called matkas that provide insulation from external heat. The kulfi prepared this way is called Matka Kulfi.

No discussion on ice cream would be complete without a mention of Ben and Jerry’s. Childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, childhood friends from Merrick, New York, quit their secure jobs ‘to do something that would be more fun.’ They took a $5 correspondence course in ice cream making, borrowed $12,000, and opened an ice cream parlour in 1978 in a renovated gas station in downtown Burlington, Vermont. Their venture has produced more original flavours than can be imagined with quirky names like Chubby Hubby and Chunky Monkey. Unilever acquired the franchaise in 2000.

Speaking of flavours, there is no accounting for taste. The last part of the last century has seen an explosion of the weird kind. There are a number of flavours that include meat, like chicken wing (Japan), foie gras or fattened duck liver (China), lobster (Maine, USA), ham and cheese (Venezuela), squid ink (Korea), candied bacon (USA) and fish and chips (Australia). Spicy flavours include wasabi (Japan), cardamom (Finland), hot cinnamon (USA), peach jalapeno (Sweden), horseradish and chili (Philipines). Alcohol-flavoured concoctions include gin and tonic (Spain), tequila (Mexico). There is even a pizza ice cream made with crushed tomatoes, crushed red pepper, oregano, raw garlic paste, basil and salt, a garlic ice cream and a tomato one. But did you know that there is a charcoal ice cream made with burnt coconut husk sold in Mumbai? Or the crocodile egg and durian ice cream made with real crocodile eggs, in Philippines?

Above all, did you know that in Italy they sell a viagra ice cream, in its signature blue colour? Enough said.

However, it doesn’t matter which flavour floats your boat, does it? All that matters is that you enjoy it, down to the last lick. In fact, the philosophy behind ice cream also extends to life itself.

Life is like an ice cream. Enjoy it before it melts!

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