Author Laura B. Weiss dishes on the ancient frozen treat.
Ice cream is easy to take for granted. It’s got a prominent spot in supermarket aisles, a corner place always serves it, and there’s usually a half-gallon in the freezer. God willing, that’s the way it always will be. Surely, some care about ice cream’s origins, but most would rather enjoy it in blissful ignorance. Knowing too much about the fat content would also be a buzzkill, but that’s another story. One brave soul who’s not afraid to explore this classic frozen dessert’s history is New York food blogger and journalist Laura Weiss. Her book Ice Cream, A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2011) takes readers all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) whose emperors many historians believe were the first to enjoy the frozen milk-like treat.
Paul Kilduff: Is there any culture that doesn’t like ice cream?
Laura B. Weiss: Well, I didn’t survey every culture. It is possible there is one out there but as far as I can tell, it is about the most universal food there is. People love it from one end of the globe to the other. People take ice cream and they adapt it to their local culture. If you’re in Japan, you can get ice cream flavored with eel.
PK: You have recipes at the back of your book. I noticed one of them was for salmon ice cream. How popular is that?
LW: I don’t know but there are lots of savory ice creams.
PK: Where do you get salmon ice cream?
LW: You are in the San Francisco Bay Area, right? There is probably somebody making that or a similarly exotic flavor. There’s tons of that in New York. There is tons of that everywhere now. But if you go back in ice cream’s history, the very earliest ice cream chefs were making lots of exotic flavors.
PK: So savory ice cream could be a meal in itself?
LW: Yes. I don’t know whether you want to make a whole meal out of avocado ice cream but certainly it could be part of a meal.
PK: You could have avocado ice cream with salmon ice cream. Maybe seaweed ice cream. It’s a full meal.
LW: Then you have your salad and you’re all good to go. I’ve had an entire meal of ice cream. When I had my book launch party . . . ice cream was the centerpiece of every course.
PK: How much ice cream do you eat personally on a regular basis? Do you go through like a half-gallon a week?
LW: No. Well, first of all, the downside of ice cream is it can put the pounds on. So you have to watch your consumption. Also, I have a bit of a dairy allergy, so I can only eat a little bit at a time. I have maybe a small cup every couple of weeks because I can’t tolerate more than that.
PK: Was this torture to write this book? Do you really love ice cream and you can’t really eat it?
LW: I do. I love ice cream and it was a bit of torture, but when you get into the material you are not really thinking about the food. It’s telling the story of the birth and development of this food and how it became so popular around the world.
PK: You’re a professional. You are able to overcome that. And we all benefited from your selfless efforts.
LW: Well, thank you. I did have to taste a number of ice creams and that was very difficult research but someone has to do it, right?
PK: You’ve probably heard of Dreyer’s ice cream?
LW: I have.
PK: I grew up a few blocks from what was at one time the factory in Oakland. Everywhere inside was the story of how Bill Dreyer invented rocky road ice cream.
LW: So I’ve heard.
PK: You’re the expert on this. Do we have any reason to doubt that William Dreyer invented rocky road?
LW: I can’t verify that one way or the other. I had to cover the entire world in 110 pages so I really didn’t focus on that, but I will tell you that ice cream has tons of myths surrounding it. Nobody really knows who invented the ice cream sundae. There’s about five different cities that claim to be the [sundae’s] birthplace. Nobody really knows who created the ice cream cone. There are about five different claimants to that. And, in fact, the cone really started as a medieval waffle.
PK: I don’t believe anyone else is claiming to have invented rocky road.
LW: Everything I read seems to indicate that he did, but I’m not an expert on Dreyer’s ice cream.
PK: If there is an amended edition of your book, you may have to include even just a paragraph about [it].
LW: I’m sure I would. I really love rocky road ice cream, but again this is a pretty broad brush. [The book] starts with the Chinese in the ninth century, who basically had the first frozen dessert made with dragon eyeballs and camphor, [then] takes you all the way to the present.
PK: I learned from reading your book that before Baskin-Robbins there was Howard Johnson. It was his goal to broaden the ice cream palate of America.
LW: Very true.
PK: And he didn’t. On his deathbed he felt he was a failure because Americans still just wanted vanilla but Baskin and Robbins stepped into the breech and did what he couldn’t do. Why do you think they were successful and he wasn’t?
LW: The first time I ever had Baskin-Robbins, I think it was blueberry cheesecake. I was in Palo Alto for the summer and the counterculture was starting. People were getting interested in food.
PK: You were a hippie.
LW: I was a very young hippie. But [Baskin-Robbins] was cool. They had these funky names and it just kind of went along with the times. Howard Johnson peaked basically during the ’50s and early ’60s and people were much more conservative. Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry is what people wanted. He wasn’t really way out there with his flavors. He had things like maple walnut and peach. He broadened the palate but he didn’t have things like blueberry cheesecake.
PK: It was the times, yeah.
LW: He really paved the way because he got people used to the fact that you can go to an ice cream shop and there would be 20, 30 flavors. That was very new. Now if you go back to early ice cream history, the early Italian chefs were making 20 and 30 flavors but then there was a very, very long period where that went into decline. So by the ’50s they were starting to do that stuff again. Howard Johnson doesn’t get enough credit. He really in many ways started this whole artisanal ice cream trend.
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Age: I’d rather not.
Birthplace: Rockville Centre, N.Y.
Astrological sign: Aries.
Motto: None. If you lived in New York you wouldn’t have a motto either. It’s not a motto kind of place.
Book on Nightstand: The Round House, by Louise Erdrich