~ James W. Parkinson, Confectioners’ Journal, May 1879
Rich, creamy, refreshing and delicious - where would we be without ice cream? Personally, it is one of my favorite foods - embedded in many childhood memories: A scoop of chocolate marshmallow liberally sprinkled with jimmies at Peterson's ice cream shop, a twist of soft serve Carvel dipped in chocolate (which inevitably dripped down the side of the cone), rich custardy Kohr's on the boardwalk, or just simply enjoying it at home with my siblings - it was always a treat to be enjoyed and savored.
Well, I guess President Reagan must have felt pretty strongly about this luscious dessert too, since in 1984 he designated July as National Ice Cream Month and the third Sunday in July as National Ice Cream Day, encouraging all Americans to observe these events with "appropriate ceremonies and activities."
Ice cream was not invented in the U.S. (forms of ice creams have been around since the thirteenth century), but it has become hugely popular over the past couple hundred years, with the average American now consuming almost 22 pounds of ice cream per year. The city of Philadelphia played a significant role promoting the icy indulgence, particularly during the nineteenth century. Often referred to as “Ice Cream City,” Philadelphia was situated in a highly advantageous location, ideal for making excellent ice cream. The Schuylkill and Delaware rivers that sandwiched the city produced plentiful ice harvests each winter, and fresh, quality ingredients were regularly delivered to its markets from local farms.
Confectioner James Parkinson was the unrivaled expert at crafting Philadelphia style ice cream, also called custard cream or Philadelphia cream, often considered the prototype of frozen desserts in America. In the nineteenth century, Parkinson’s ice cream was renown as the best of the best – not only in Philadelphia, but throughout the U.S.
As a huge advocate for American foods, Parkinson boasted that the smooth and creamy ices made from rich Philadelphia cream were unique and original, a product of the region’s fertile bounty. “This delicious dish smacked of the fat of the land,” he said. According to Parkinson, in order to make ice creams of this caliber, it was crucial to use only premium ingredients – the best white sugar and finest flavors, and absolutely fresh, pure, rich, sweet cream.
These nineteenth century ice cream flavors were quite different from today, based on the ingredients that were fashionable and available at the time, with fruit flavors the most common. In the 1840s and 1850s the most popular flavors were vanilla, lemon, strawberry and pineapple. Keeping with what was trendy, Parkinson includes three of these on his Thousand Dollar Dinner menu – vanilla, strawberry and lemon. Parkinson's vanilla ice cream obtained its rich, decadent taste through the use of pure vanilla sugar, which contained small bits of ground vanilla bean, not artificial vanilla flavoring as is often used today. He even sold his own vanilla extract to be used in various confectionery. In an advertisement for this product he warns, "Never use vanilla extracts which are of a dark color. The pure article is of a bright, clear amber. The genuine vanilla odor is much more delicate, like the fine aromatic fragrance of flowers.
Vanilla ice - One quart of cream, half an ounce of vanilla, twelve ounces of sugar; cut the vanilla into small pieces and pound it with the sugar until it is quite fine, add it to the cream and eggs, make it into a custard, strain, and when cold freeze.
Perhaps Philadelphia's love for the cool, creamy treat can be best summed up by this quote from a July 1837 article in Graham's Magazine entitled "Philadelphia in the Dog Days":
"Now ice cream is potent, and Parkinson opens his portals and vends vanilla. Penn cockneys cram the dainty fabrication down their unrelenting mouths with marvelous insatiety."
Sources: The Larder Invaded Mary Anne Hines, Gordon M. Marshall and William Woys Weaver; Refined Tastes by Wendy Woloson; Confectioners’ Journal, August 1879, Vol. V, No. 55; Confectioners’ Journal, March 1876, Vol. II, No. 15, International Dairy Foods Association website