Grateful American® Foundation

What is the origin of ice cream in the US?

June 13th

7f6fe009d854f595ae74ed103902aa93June 13, 1789 — This evening, Elizabeth “Betsy” Hamilton — the wife of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) who was first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States — served ice cream to George Washington. It was said to be the highlight of the dinner party. The dessert caught on, for by August, the president and first lady likewise served ice cream at a party attended by Vice President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, and Chief Justice John Jay and his wife, Sarah. (An inventory of Mount Vernon shortly after Washington’s death listed 10 ice cream pots among the kitchenware.)

Thomas Jefferson was also a great fan of ice cream, especially vanilla, which he first enjoyed in France and may have introduced to America. During his presidency, he sometimes served ice cream balls encased in warm pastry. According to Barbara G. Carson’s “Ambitious Appetites: Dining, Behavior, and Patterns of Consumption in Federal Washington” (Aia, 1990), this generated “great astonishment and murmurings” from the dinner guests.

By the end of the 18th century, the commercial harvesting and shipping of ice from the cold states to warmer ones was taking hold, and Washington-area residents could purchase ice year-round. The ready availability — and eventual affordability — of ice, plus the invention of the hand-cranked, dasher-style ice cream machine and appearance of soda fountains in the mid-19th century changed the ice cream experience dramatically. Ordinary folks, as well as the region’s elite, could enjoy the amazing pleasure of keeping cool with ice cream, sorbets, sherbets and such.

And it is believe that the man who made the cream so popular among the masses was a black man by the name of Jackson. In the early part of the present century kept a small confectionery store in Washington. Cold custards, which were cooled after being made by setting them on a cake of ice, were very fashion able, and Jackson, at Mrs. Hamilton’s suggestion, froze them by placing the ingredients in a tin bucket and completely covering it with ice. Each bucket contained a quart, and was sold for $1. It immediately became popular, and the inventor soon enlarged his store, and when he died left a considerable fortune. A good many tried to follow his example, and ice cream was hawked about the streets, being wheeled along very much as the hokey-pokey carts are now, but none of them succeeded in obtaining the flavor that Jackson had in his product.

Words of Wisdom

Vanilla Frozen Custard 
Makes about 1 quart

The ingredients in modern frozen custard recipes haven't changed much since Thomas Jefferson brought a recipe back to Monticello from France. At the time, vanilla was still little known in America. Provided by his personal French chef and written down by Jefferson, his version called for two bottles of good cream, six egg yolks, a half-pound of sugar and a stick of vanilla. As its name suggests, this recipe involves readying a custard mixture. The flavor is richer, the color creamier, and the texture smoother than that of regular vanilla ice cream.

— Recipe from Nancy Baggett, author of "The All-American Cookie Book" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)