An “Ice Cream Battle!” for National Ice Cream Month

daveys ice cream_williamsburg_swallaceIn 1984, President Reagan made one of his most important announcements: July officially became “National Ice Cream Month,” and the third Sunday is “National Ice Cream Day.” Yes, that is why there was a number of ice cream celebrations all over the city this weekend, including last Thursday’s “Ice Cream Battle!” at the Museum of Food and Drink (62 Bayard Street). MOFAD brought in historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman of FourPoundsFlour.com to discuss the history of ice cream and the current two most popular flavors, vanilla and chocolate. And to celebrate this remarkable holiday month here on Greenpointers, we’re going to bring you a series on our wonderful local ice cream purveyors!

Ice cream itself descends from two different desserts: the Middle Eastern sharbats (scoops of snow or shaved ice with syrup) and European custards. Everything changed in the 18th century when scientists discovered that salt lowers the freezing point of water, allowing for the machinery that creates ice cream to exist. In its early days, ice cream was a way for the rich to show off their wealth. Ambergris, a musky substance sometimes referred to as liquid gold because it’s so expensive, was an early popular flavoring for ice cream; a modern equivalent would be the $1,000 sundaes covered in edible gold leaf. Other sought-after flavorings at that time were also very perfumey in nature, like rose water and Seville orange. Though vanilla was hard to come by in the 1700s, it did find its way into ice cream pretty quickly, the most famous example being Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream recipe.

Image via The Columbia Daily Tribune
Image via The Columbia Daily Tribune

A second big moment in ice cream history occurred in 1846 when New Yorker Nancy Johnson invented a quicker way to make ice cream via a hand-cranked machine. Her device and others similar to it enabled the growing middle class to partake in the frozen delights. By the turn of the century, ice cream was popular enough to even be street food via what were known as penny licks, small dollops of ice cream you could get for a penny. The treat appealed to the masses attending the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, especially when a Syrian concessionaire began placing ice cream inside cooled waffle cones.

One thing that hasn’t really changed through the course of time is the amount of milk-to-fat. Successful ice cream recipes will pretty much have a two-parts milk to one-part cream ratio. Fortunately for vegans, coconut milk has about the correct proportion, it’s why you see that as a base for many vegan ice creams. Whether dairy or vegan, Americans tend to prefer vanilla, chocolate, fruit flavors, nut flavors, and candy mix-ins to the aromatic flavors of old, but you can find more exotic and savory ice creams at our local parlors.

A selection of Häagen-Dazs
A selection of Häagen-Dazs

Of course, you can’t have an ice cream event without a full ice cream tasting, and what better sponsor to have than the most New York of ice cream companies, Häagen-Dazs, which is now also the official ice cream of MOFAD. Don’t be fooled by the umlaut, Häagen-Dazs was founded by Reuben and Rose Mattus in 1961 in The Bronx, with their first store opening in Brooklyn in 1976. That Brooklyn store, at 120 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, actually had a grand reopening this past weekend, so all of us can now stop by to see (and taste) a bit of New York ice cream history. The Häagen-Dazs team brought a good number of their current flavors for the tasting; I highly suggest taking a chance on pints of their subtle Green Tea (it does not taste like a kilo of matcha powder stirred into some cream), the Pina Colada-esque Pineapple Coconut, or the “flavor of summer” Mango, whenever you pick up one of their classics (I’m pretty sure their Coffee was scientifically proven to be the best coffee ice cream in the world).

Ice cream in general has been having quite a revival over the past decade, and luckily for us, we now have plenty of places to indulge in our ice cream sundae fantasies. Over the next couple of weeks, the Greenpointers team will be bringing you the stories behind some of our local shops, but until then, go celebrate this most American of holidays!

Van Leeuwen
620 Manhattan Avenue
204 Wythe Avenue

Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory
97 Commercial Street

Hail Mary (check out their sundae menu)
68 Greenpoint Avenue

Baskin Robbins
643 Manhattan Avenue

OddFellows
175 Kent Avenue

Davey’s
201 Bedford Avenue

MOFAD is located at 62 Bayard Street, and is open Wednesday & Thursday, 12-5pm; Friday, 12-8pm; Saturday & Sunday, 12-5pm. Be sure to check out MOFAD and their upcoming food events at the Lab and around the city.

About Siobhan Wallace

Siobhan Wallace is a freelance writer & editor. She co-founded the food blog Blondie & Brownie in 2008 and co-authored "New York à la Cart: Recipes and Stories from the Big Apple's Best Food Trucks" (Running Press, 2013).

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