Ice Cream, We Scream!

Ice cream is an American pastime ubiquitous to a hot, humid summer. And I do mean pastime – in the Midwest, in particular, ice cream stands and brands abound and elicit very strong opinions.

Whether you are a frozen custard or an ice cream purist will determine the store you patronize. National chains compete for attention with the homegrown article – and often lose! On this note, if you are ever in Ohio, visit Granville and try Whit’s – it’s excellent!

Then there are the mad scientists who like to concoct their own homemade varities. Even among this crowd is division. Are you an old-fashioned ice cream maker? Do you only use the rock salt and ice, hand cranked models? Or are you technologically advanced and prefer the self-freezing chamber versions that are electrified?

Frozen, in time

As with all my history quests, I want to know whether, and how, people made things in the past. So, what about ice cream – was it available in the days before electric refrigeration?

Well, if you’ve ever watched Meet Me in St. Louis you will discover that yes, it was, at least according to MGM’s version of the early 20th century. Ice cream was a special treat to be had in the summer, after all, who wants a freezing bowlful of cream in the dead of winter?

Likewise, ice cream and frozen custards were a specialty of the colonial era. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both aficionados of the tasty treat introduced to them by the French. Recipes from this era abound and their decadent sweetness was made possible by the construction of icehouses to store blocks of frozen ice through the summer (Alice Ross, “Ice Cream, a Colonial Delicacy,” Early American Life, June 2010).


Hauling ice to be stored was a going business until the dawn of electrical refrigeration. Each winter big blocks of ice had to be cut from frozen lakes, hauled to privately-owned icehouses or stored in a big, partially-subterranean barn. Packed in sawdust or straw, the ice would keep far into the summer.

Ice chips and rock salt were used to drop the temperature of the chamber in which cream, sugar, and fruit or an egg-based custard mixture would freeze. Hearty volunteers turned the handle keeping the ice cream moving in order to freeze evenly.

Finally, after all that work, was the finished product – smooth, homemade ice cream!

This is by far one of most rewarding historical re-enactments that you can pursue today – find a hand-cranked ice cream maker at a garage sale, marshal your ingredients, crank away, and slip into the past via a bowl of ice cream! Chipping the block of ice from a frozen lake and storing it all summer is up to you!

– Amanda Stiver