According to popular legend, ice cream was invented by the ancient Chinese, brought to Italy by Marco Polo, to France by Catherine de Medici, and thence to America by Thomas Jefferson. The truth, however, about summer’s favorite chilled dairy treat is a bit more difficult to pin down. Iced drinks and desserts have been around since at least 4000 B.C., when nobles along the Euphrates River built icehouses to take the edge off the Mesopotamian summer heat. Snow, likely used to cool wine, was sold in the streets of Athens in the fifth century B.C., while the Roman emperor Nero (37–67 A.D.) enjoyed iced refreshments laced with honey. Sources from the Tang dynasty in China describe a sweet drink made from iced, camphor-laced water buffalo milk.
Chilled refreshments were also popular in the Islamic world. The English word sherbet comes from the Turkish term for a broad category of sweetened drinks, often cooled with snow from storehouses. Faloodeh, a Persian treat of vermicelli noodles in chilled syrup, dates back centuries. In India, Mughal emperors savored kulfi, a quasi-ice cream made from condensed milk frozen in molds.
Indeed, the first verified records of kulfi are nearly contemporary with the earliest evidence of frozen sherbets and ice creams in Europe. In both cases what made this breakthrough possible was the knowledge (familiar to many in the Arab world since the 13th century) that ice mixed with salt set in motion an exothermic chemical reaction, which created a heat-sucking slurry with a far lower freezing point than typical water. Immersed in a bath of exothermic brine, ice crystals easily formed in various liquid concoctions. Stirred regularly to prevent large ice crystals from forming, a scoop-able frozen foam resulted.
READ MORE: Frozen History: The Story of the Popsicle
The first European ice creams and water ices (sherbets) were likely made in Italy during the early 1600s (a century after a teenaged Catherine de Medici departed Florence to become queen of France). Descriptions of water ice desserts date to the 1620s, and by midcentury they were a feature of banquets in Paris, Florence, Naples and Spain. In 1672 Englishman Elias Ashmole recorded that “one plate of ice cream” had been served to King Charles II at a banquet the previous year. In 1694 Antonio Latini, a Neapolitan steward, published a recipe for a milk sorbet laced with candied pumpkin.
Ice cream crossed the Atlantic with the European colonists, and was served by first lady of colonial Maryland as early as 1744. George Washington bought a mechanical ice cream maker for his estate at Mount Vernon in 1784, the same year Thomas Jefferson likely acquired a taste for French ice cream while serving as a diplomat in Paris. While president, Jefferson served ice cream in the executive mansion at least six times. In a lifetime of copious notes and writings, Jefferson only wrote out ten recipes, one of which was for French-style vanilla ice cream, fortified with egg yolks.
By the late-19th century, America was a hotbed of ice cream innovation. A Philadelphia pharmacist mixed the first ice cream soda in 1874. The ice cream sundae dates to 1881 (with several Midwestern towns claiming to be the site of its invention)—its name likely coming from “blue laws” that banned sale of soda drinks on Sundays. The first edible ice cream cups were patented in the 1880s, around the time that milkshakes—originally promoted as a health drink—became popular. The waffle cone rocketed to fame when introduced at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and the Popsicle was patented in 1923. Both Dairy Queen and the Carvel company claim to have developed the first soft-serve ice cream in the mid-1930s, while frozen yogurt was a latecomer, introduced in the 1970s.
Today ice cream and its frigid cousins are known and loved worldwide, even imported to Antarctica, where a Frosty Boy soft-serve machine is a famous focal point for the scientists who work at McMurdo Station.