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G Force

The cool history of ice cream

(Tess Steinkolk)
By Glenn Yoder
Globe Staff / April 27, 2011

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Q. Your book is indeed a global history of ice cream, touching on everything from Middle Eastern orchid ice cream to George Washington’s sweet tooth. Which country’s version is the most bizarre?

A. I have never tasted Turkish ice cream but that sounds pretty interesting. It’s made with orchid roots and it’s very stretchy, and apparently the street vendors have to cut it with a knife. There are some interesting flavors apparently in Israel, where they have halva ice cream.

Q. Where would you send me for the world’s best ice cream?

A. I can tell you exactly where to go. We were just in Sicily. We went to a place in Palermo, I think it was called Mazara. And they had this classic gelato with three or four flavors. My husband and I were swooning. It was like eating velvet. I have never tasted anything close to it anywhere in Italy, and I have been a lot of places in Italy, or certainly not in this country.

Q. What was the turning point for ice cream in this country?

A. Once the mechanical ice cream maker was invented and once freezing became less of an issue, ice cream just took off after the Civil War. When the soda fountain was created, that was another breakthrough. [Soda fountain shops] became community gathering places. You’d go with your date to the local ice cream parlor.

Q. You credit hotel and restaurant entrepreneur Howard Johnson, who was born in Boston and opened his first drive-in shop in Wollaston, with having a huge impact on ice cream.

A. The car was really instrumental in spreading the popularity of ice cream. Howard Johnson knew it was a car-driven society and built restaurants and ice cream emporiums that catered to that. Some [locations] had bigger parking lots than the square footage of the building itself. You could trace the postwar migration of families from the cities to the suburbs by where the Howard Johnson’s were.

Q. The book touches on the ice trade, which also has deep New England ties.

A. With the ice barons in New England, this was big business. They were shipping ice all over the world, because it wasn’t just ice cream, you needed to keep things cold. This is what was called natural ice; they dug it from springs and rivers. What better place than New England, right? Long, cold winters. The thing they dreaded the most was a thaw or a warm winter.

Q. What’s the next trend?

A. Gelato has become globalized. I was walking down 23rd Street in New York a couple weeks ago and there was a Blimpie and they were advertising that they had gelato. It’s going mass market. There are a lot of Italian companies that have set up shop here that provide bases so that anyone can make gelato. So what happened to US ice creams that started here, then became globalized — to where you can get Häagen-Dazs in Japan — now seems to be happening with gelato.

Q. Are you a cup or a cone person?

A. Oh, cone. The race between getting it into your mouth and having it drip all over your clothes is one of the most fun things.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at gyoder@boston.com.

WHO
Laura B. Weiss
WHAT
In “Ice Cream: A Global History,’’ the author traces the cold treat’s long journey from an Italian delicacy for the privileged in the 17th century to a mainstream staple whose popularity boomed in America in the mid-1900s. Weiss, a food and travel journalist who attended Simmons College, chose the subject despite having an ice cream allergy for much of her childhood. “Sometimes you are attracted to the things you were denied as a child,’’ she says. “The day the doctor told me I could finally eat ice cream was a red letter day for me. My mother gave me a spoonful of vanilla, which I can taste to this day.’’