In my extended family, there were uncles who were more successful than my dad, aunts more affectionate than my mom, and cousins far more endearing than me or any of my siblings.

But two things kept the whole clan flocking to our house summer after summer: an enormous White Mountain ice cream freezer, and (thanks to Dad’s reliable little herd of Holsteins) enough fresh cream and milk to get it cranking whenever the impulse struck.

The attraction to ice cream runs deep. As food science writer Harold McGee puts it, “Ice cream is a dish that manages to heighten the already remarkable qualities of cream. By freezing it, we make it possible to taste the birth of creaminess, the tantalizing transition from solidity to fluidity.”

You could say ice cream is a miracle that happens in the mouth — a feat that required a serendipitous combination of will, work and wisdom.

Storing winter ice to relieve the summer heat dates back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, China, Greece and Rome, where servants harvested mountain snows and hauled it great distances for the comfort of the royals.

It was only natural that chefs would put that ice to use. A frozen combo of rice and milk was reportedly eaten in China around 200 B.C. And the Roman emperor Nero (37-68 A.D.) is said to have liked his fruit mixed with ice — cooling himself with something that sounds a whole lot like a snow cone.

Forerunners existed in several cultures. But historians generally agree that the dish we’d recognize as ice cream was born much later, in Italy sometime in the 1600s.

Sicily claims to be ground zero. And despite what “The Godfather” led you to believe about Sicilian integrity, the lore is hard to refuse. Sicily’s imposing volcanic peak, Mount Etna, has been described as a natural refrigerator, providing both snow and volcanic ash to keep it insulated. What’s more, the island’s Arab occupiers brought citrus, sugar and, quite possibly, a truly vital ingredient — the scientific knowledge that made ice cream’s invention possible.

The science of delicious

Plain frozen cream is as hard as a rock. Sugar makes it softer, but also lowers its freezing point. What made ice cream possible was chemistry — the knowledge that when salt is added to ice, it lowers the ice’s temperature, making it possible to freeze cream in a form that’s both sweet and silken.

What the Italians invented the French were quick to embellish. French chefs discovered that frequent stirring produced a more delicate texture and developed decadent formulas that called for up to 20 egg yolks per pint of cream.

By the time of the American Revolution, ice cream was enjoyed in capitals throughout Europe. American colonists George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were reported to be fans.

Democracy and dessert

Europe gets credit for ice cream’s development, but its democratization happened on this side of the pond — thanks to American ingenuity and a certain Nancy Johnson of Philadelphia, who in 1843 patented a hand-cranked ice cream freezer with a sealed chamber set within a bucket for salty ice. (The precursor to the iconic wooden freezer that kept my family churning away for years.)

Her invention, along with advances in refrigeration, transformed what was once the preserve of the privileged into an accessible treat for the masses.

Widespread production paved the way for ice cream sodas (popular among teetotalers in the rising Temperance Movement) and ice cream sundaes (allegedly developed in reaction to strict blue laws which, in some cities, prohibited even the sale of soda on Sunday). And then there’s the ever-popular ice cream cone (in 1903, a Wall Street push cart vendor patented a mold for hand-rolled cones; in 1912 the rolling was mechanized by a Portland inventor who later sold out to Nabisco).

Today, ice cream might be more American than apple pie. According to recent data, U.S. manufacturers annually produce 1.53 billion gallons of ice cream and related desserts. The average American devours more than 20 quarts a year (a figure that leaves Europe far behind). And no matter what you think of Congress, our capital shows real leadership on this front: The District of Columbia eats more ice cream than any of the 50 states per capita.

Bringing it home

With all due respect to Ben & Jerry — not to mention the charming folks who dole out samples at your neighborhood ice cream shop — there’s something immensely satisfying about making your own.

A full-bells-and-whistles kind of self-refrigerating ice cream freezer could set you back a couple of hundred bucks, but automatic models with cylinders that you pre-chill in your freezer can be had for about $60, and similar hand-cranked versions can be cheaper and charming — a good way to occupy restless kids on a summer day. (My children were endlessly amazed at how their efforts turned gloppy liquids into their favorite dessert; later, as teens, they’d prop the freezer on a coffee table, and crank their way through an episode of “The Simpsons” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”)

Moreover, you don’t need an ice cream freezer to indulge in homemade frozen treats. Traditional granita, a form of Italian ice, sets up in your freezer. Innovative cooks have devised a workaround using a food processor to produce sorbet. And most formulas for ice cream can be poured into molds to create treats-on-a-stick far tastier than Popsicles.

So grab the cream, the bowls, the spoons. Your kitchen is about to become one very chill place. Expect the family to | follow.


Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis freelance writer.