Like many beloved products, we don’t know exactly who invented ice cream. The sweet treat has been around for centuries, although not quite as we know it today. The summer favorite can be traced back to ancient civilizations around the world, including Egyptians, Romans, Chinese and Incan people.
Their ice-based desserts were flavored with juice and honey, resulting in something not unlike what we know as snow cones or shaved ice. These cool treats must have been a relief in the soaring temperatures common in these regions. However, the heat made iced drinks and desserts a delicacy reserved for rulers.
A dairy-based dessert more similar to what we know as ice cream was first enjoyed by Chinese rulers during the Tang Dynasty. Instead of flavoring and eating ice, it was used to cool a mixture of milk and flour. The Chinese continued to innovate, creating a frozen dessert of milk, ice and preserves during the Yuan Dynasty.
It was this treat that Marco Polo is rumored to have enjoyed while traveling the Silk Road. He then brought back this sherbet-like dessert to Europe, where it was enjoyed by royalty throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and became what we know today as ice cream. When upper class Europeans migrated to what would become the United States, they brought their love for ice cream with them. The Library of Congress even has Thomas Jefferson’s vanilla ice cream recipe among its archives!
The popularity of ice cream among all classes of people is due to many other innovations. First came the invention of ice houses and the hand-cranked churn in the 1800s. Still, ice cream was reserved for special occasions until just before the turn of the century. “Steam power, mechanical refrigeration, the homogenizer, electric power and motors, packing machines, and new freezing processes and equipment,” as well as motorized transportation are what catapulted ice cream into the widely-enjoyed treat it is today!