Ice Cream, to be eaten with caution

One of the most enjoyable aspects of historical reconstructions is experimenting with the food of the past. So, when a local shop advertised a small, cheap, ice cream maker, I remembered a booklet that I had had in my library for several decades.

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The introduction, by the author’s son, is delightful.

I have heard from unimpeachable authorities that as a young man my father not infrequently consumed sixteen ice-cream sundaes at a sitting. His record is believed to be eighteen Neapolitan Sundaes topped with fresh fruit. He then adjourned to an eating-house and consumed a steak, onions and baked potatoes.

On several occasions he has visited ice-cream factories in America; and in January, 1965, I saw him eat a GALLON of ice-cream while waiting for a ‘bus in a snow storm at Norwalk, Connecticut. This behaviour must not be attributed to exhibitionism-only one person, apart from myself, witnessed the last incident (a buxom negress who disappeared into the distance laughing) -but rather to a Rabelasian proclivity for his favourite dish.

In short, I think that the reader will appreciate that JSC is well qualified to edit a monograph about ice-creams.

So the maker was purchased and the experiments began. Modern ice cream makers work in exactly the same way as those of the past. The mixture is placed in a vessel surrounded by a freezing mixture, now it is frozen in the freezer beforehand, then it was made from ice and salt – effective but it did sometimes lead to salty ice cream. It is stirred by a paddle, now powered by a rather noisy electric motor, then by a (probably less noisy) kitchen maid.

I have only tried the simpler mixtures so far, all with a fair degree of success. But to try them properly I had, of course, to eat them in the nineteenth century manner. Unfortunately I do not possess any ice cream moulds so all my experiments (so far) had to be with ice cream that had been, ‘sent up rough’ i.e not in a mould.

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Small glass of the early nineteenth century;

Ice cream needs to be frozen, that is obvious, but the only way of freezing was by means of ice, and the only way of obtaining ice was packing an underground Ice House with the stuff in mid-winter, and hoping the building was insulated enough to keep it frozen until summer. Ice was therefore very expensive, only available to the very rich. By the beginning of the nineteenth century techniques were being developed for moving ice around, it was still expensive but not as much as before. In holiday resorts the lack of ice was something to be deplored. As jane Austen wrote to her sister in 1804;

Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which strikes me so forcibly as there being no ice in the town. For every other vexation I was in some measure prepared. But for there being no ice, what could prepare me? Weymouth is altogether a shocking place, I perceive, without recommendation of any kind and worthy only of being frequented by the inhabitants of Gloucester.

Now, ice cream could be sold in shops, this small glass, with a small quantity of Plain Ice Cream is how it would have been served in the early part of the century.

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Moulded ice cream glass of the later nineteenth century;

During the nineteenth century a remarkable trade developed, ice was cut from frozen lakes in the far north, in Canada or Scandinavia, then brought by insulated ships to be kept in ice houses. Ice was even taken as far south as the West Indies. This glass is typical of the sort that would have been used to serve ice cream, either at home or in a café. It contains a Strawberry Ice Cream.

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A Penny Lick;

Now cheaper sorts of ice cream became available, these were sold on street corners for a penny. The vendor would place a blob of ice cream on top of the glass cone, which was then licked off and the glass returned. It would be wiped clean and the next customer served. This was an incredibly effective way of spreading disease, and by the end of the century the Penny Licks were banned and ice cream was served in cones as it is today.

Ice cream was regarded with great suspicion in the nineteenth century that, as much as the cost, is why they were served up in small portions, one household manual advised;

Ices. These should not be taken in hot weather after violent exercise, such as dancing, for then they are very dangerous. At all times they should be eaten sparingly; and the feeble and delicate will do well to avoid them altogether.

We tend to laugh at such advice today, but if you consider the recipe for the Plain Ice Cream, this consists of double cream and sugar, that’s all. The classic Scottish recipe of the deep fried Mars Bar sounds like the healthy option compared to Victorian ice creams. So perhaps they were right to be suspicious and these are the most dangerous historical experiments I have ever carried out.


Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Ice Cream

11 responses to “Ice Cream, to be eaten with caution

  1. Wonderful post! I loved the information about storing ice and bringing it from Canada! And the penny licks! Priceless. Unhealthy but delicious!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What is it with you and dodgy food? One day you’ll croak through over zealous experimentation!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ali Isaac

    Great post! The Penny Lick sounds horrific, I’m not surprised it was banned! I like making ice cream too, its fun. I have visited some big old houses in Ireland that all had ice cellars on their grounds, but I had no idea that the ice may not have been local and brought from as far afield as Canada… Incredible!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ice houses in the great houses were usually only used for ice, and snow, collected locally. A properly built ice house could hold ice from one winter to another, and unless there was a series of mild winters the great houses wouldn’t be using imported ice. That would have been going to the towns, for sale to ice cream makers, fishmongers and larger houses in the town.

      An idea for anybody who writes historic detective fiction would be the discovery of a frozen body, buried in the ice house.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Perhaps, I was going to write a Halloween story using the characters I created for my Christmas story.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ali Isaac

        Great! I haven’t read the Christmas story yet, but I heard about it from Geoffle. I will get to it. I’ve not long discovered your blog.


  4. Hi Gordon I found that very interesting and informative . I am amazed by icream consumption of the author of your icream book! All that dangerous substance and then occasionally a steak meal!! No doubt he lived to a ripe old age, our forefathers were made of braver and sturdier stuff than us. Please excuse me now I need to go and lie down!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Historical Reconstruction – A Nice Cup of Tea | The Curious Archaeologist

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