It has been very hot and sticky here the last few weeks, which has increased my consumption of ice cream. As I was eating a bowl of butter pecan last night, I started wondering about the history of ice cream. What were its origins?
This morning, I did a little quick research to find out. The results were fascinating. Did you know it dates back to at least 200 B.C.? Alexander the Great reportedly enjoyed snow and ice flavored with honey and nectar in ancient Greece. According to Biblical references, King Solomon liked to consume iced drinks during the harvest. And the Roman emperor Nero is thought to have sent slaves into the mountains to fetch back snow which was then mixed with nectar, fruit pulp and honey.
The first dish which more closely resembled today’s ice cream was made by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) using heated milk, flour and camphor. Ice cream gradually made its way to Europe (with help from Marco Polo) and from there to the New World.
The first recorded account of it in North America was in 1744. The governor of Maryland served a dessert which, according to a guest’s account, was “a Dessert…Among the Rarities of which is Compos’d, was some fine Ice Cream which, with the Strawberries and Milk, eat most deliciously.” Ice cream quickly became very popular in America, numbering George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among its ardent admirers. In fact, George Washington is said to have spent $200 (a lot of money back then) for ice cream during the summer of 1790 and Thomas Jefferson’s personal recipe for ice cream is shown in the picture on the right.
Fast forward through the years, and ice cream continued to be very popular. The first ice cream soda (and soda fountain) were created in 1874. Interestingly, the ice cream sundae was invented in the 1880s because of religious strictures against consuming “sinfully rich” ice cream sodas on Sundays. So someone took out the carbonated water, poured some chocolate syrup on top, and voila, the ice cream “Sunday” was invented. Several towns have said they are the sundae’s birthplace. However, the two locations with the strongest claim are Two Rivers, Wisconsin and Ithaca, New York. These two cities are still politely arguing the point. (I have to vote for Two Rivers, being a Wisconsin gal myself.)
Ice cream even served as a morale booster during WWII. Though dairy products were rationed back home, each branch of the military served as much of it as they could to the troops overseas. It was such a uniquely American symbol at that point, Mussolini even banned it in Italy during the war. After the war, when the dairy rations were lifted, Americans eagerly risked brain freeze to dive into bowls of ice cream again – averaging over 20 quarts per person in 1946.
Today, in addition to the many forms of ice cream available in grocery stores, there are many specialty ice cream shops and restaurants to satisfy true aficionados. Which is a good thing. Because when it is hot and muggy outside, a big bowl of ice cream goes down really, really well. The only downside is choosing a flavor.
Happy Independence Day, everyone. While I hope you are enjoying the day with family and friends, I also hope you will take a few minutes to remember why we are able to enjoy this day in peace and freedom. We tend to think of the founding fathers on this day, and of the men who fought in the battles. And so we should. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence knew they were risking their lives and everything they owned as soon as they set pen to paper. The men who joined the militias left their farms and their businesses behind and endured extreme privations to fight for liberty.
But let us not forget all of the other unsung heroes of that time. When the men left to fight, they left their wives and children to carry on. Betsy Ross was one of the most well-known women of the Revolution. In addition to being a heroine for creating the first American flag, looking at her biography provides interesting insights into life for women of the time.
Betsy was born in Philadelphia as Elizabeth Griscom, the eighth of 17 children in her Quaker family. After she completed her schooling, she was apprenticed to an upholsterer. (At that time, upholsterers did not just make furniture cushions, but did many different forms of sewing.) She fell in love with another apprentice, John Ross. Since he was not a Quaker, her family and church cut her off completely after she and John crossed the Delaware River one night late in 1773 to elope.
Shortly after their marriage, John and Betsy started their own upholstery business. However, fabric became scarce and times were hard. John joined the local militia, and died shortly after a gunpowder cache he was guarding exploded in January 1776. Betsy was more fortunate than most widows in that she had a business to support her. She kept busy making flags for the Pennsylvania Navy and tents and blankets for the Continental Army.
In May or June of 1776, a delegation from the Continental Congress – George Washington (who attended her church), Robert Morris, and George Ross (her deceased husband’s uncle) – reportedly paid her a visit. They asked her to use her flag-sewing skills to create a flag for all of the American colonies. Interestingly, the six-sided stars in their original design were changed to the familiar five-sided stars after Betsy demonstrated it was possible to cut out such a star with one snip of a scissors in properly-folded fabric.
Betsy remarried in June 1777 to Joseph Ashburn, a sea captain. His ship was captured by the British in 1781 and he died in a British prison the following year. Betsy married a third time in 1783 to John Claypoole, who had been in prison with Captain Ashburn and visited Betsy to share the captain’s final message. John lived much longer than her first two husbands and died in 1817.
Betsy continued with her upholstery business through all of this, and did not retire until ten years after John died. After more than 50 years as an upholsterer, she moved in with one of her married daughters and died in 1836 at the age of 84.
Even though modern historians are not certain if Betsy Ross actually sewed the first American flag, her life was still amazing. She is a great example of a strong woman from that time who buried husbands, raised children as a single mother, ran a business, bought and managed property, and lived through a war being fought all around her. She is truly one of our founding mothers, and deserves our respect and admiration.
So while you are celebrating our Independence Day today, don’t forget how it all came about. And maybe whisper a quick word of thanks to people like Betsy Ross who made it all possible.
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