The history of frozen desserts is widely believed to date back nearly 2,000 years, when the feared Emperor Nero sent his slaves high in to the surrounding mountains. There they would collect snow and ice to transport it back to their master, where it would be mixed with nectar, fruits, and other sweets, such as honey, and served as a form of sorbet. Hundreds of years later, Marco Polo is said to have brought several recipes for frozen concoctions with him from his travels to Asia, where natives had been using the recipes for thousands of years.
Despite the early and often disputed beginnings, ice cream and other frozen desserts have come a very long way. Modern technologies, especially the invention of electricity and refrigeration, have created an abundance of icy sweets that are now available to just about anyone, no slaves or mountain climbing required.
While it gained notoriety in Europe for several hundred years in the finest of courts and palaces, the Quakers are credited with finally bringing ice cream to America. In Colonial times, sweet shops in New York, Philadelphia, and other larger cities would sell the frozen concoction. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and even George Washington were documented fans of this early ice cream, often seen eating or serving this treat. Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison, is said to have served ice cream at her husband's inauguration in 1813.
Much advancement took place over the next hundred years, including the invention of the hand-cranked ice cream churn and improved recipes. The waffle cone made its debut in the very early 1900s, creating a new and delicious vessel in which to enjoy the chilly dessert. It is believed that the first cone was created by accident at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, when an ice cream vendor ran out of bowls and partnered on a whim with the waffle vendor, who created a “cornucopia” style waffle vessel. While a charming story, there is belief that the Europeans had been using cones for many years prior to 1904.
It was not until refrigeration became widely available that the boom in ice cream happened. Companies and chains such as Howard Johnson and Baskin Robbins began competing for the most flavors, and customers fell in love with the varieties. Later, the development of “soft-serve” ice cream became a favorite treat, as it is softer, airier, and decidedly different from the scoop. Dairy Queen and Tasty-Freez were pioneers in introducing soft serve to the masses, and it is still incredibly popular today.
With all this ice cream available, frozen desserts were soon to follow. Ice cream cakes filled with cookies; frozen pies full of sweet sherbets and cream; delectable bombes and Baked Alaska can all be found in the smallest of eateries to the finest luxury cruise liners. In the mid 1900s, soda shops serving milkshakes were rampant in both big cities and small towns. Today, though the soda shops are far less the norm, milkshakes, smoothies, ice cream sodas, and floats are still as popular as ever.
With the resurgence of gourmet tastes, a move back to the days of homemade and fanciful flavors has resurfaced. High-end restaurants dole out their frozen delicacies at high prices to their eager patrons on a daily basis. With a few recipes, an ice cream machine, and a little effort, you too can be in ice cream and frozen dessert heaven.