There are more myths about the origins of ice cream than flavors at Baskin-Robbins.
Credit has been bestowed upon many—all undeserving. Some sources say the ancient Romans invented ice cream, others that Marco Polo brought the discovery back to Italy from China, and many agree that Catherine de Medici introduced the French to ice cream when she married the future King Henri II. Not to be outdone by Europeans, some Americans have claimed ice cream was first made by Martha Washington, or brought to this country from France by Thomas Jefferson, or invented by Dolley Madison while at the White House. There is no documentation for any of these claims. Robert Brantley, a Colonial Williamsburg journeyman who has spent countless hours researching the topic, says, “These stories were created during the 19th century by ice cream sellers who were looking for a marketing angle.”
Each story does contain a kernel of truth. The Romans did mix snow or chipped ice with various flavorings, but that makes Slurpees, not ice cream. Most historians agree that Marco Polo visited China in the 13th century, and that the Chinese were probably the first to invent an iced dairy product, but if the wily Venetian ever saw or tasted such a memorable food, he makes no mention of it in his journals. And Catherine de Medici of Florence, Italy, did marry the future king of France in 1533, but that was before Italian cooks had learned to artificially freeze liquids and over a century and a half before the earliest known French ice cream recipe. (Not to mention that she didn’t bring any Italian cooks with her when she moved to France.)
Ice cream probably originated in China, but very little reliable research has been done on the subject. As early as the 7th century, a frozen milk product is described in a Chinese document. Another description, this one poetic, survives from the 12th century. If those two bits of evidence leave historians skeptical, there is a more reliable mention of ice cream being served at the Mogul court in the 14th century.
Knowledge of ice cream could have spread overland along the Silk Road routes from China through the Middle East and into Italy, but it seems more likely that what spread west was the knowledge of how to freeze things by the seemingly magical combination of ice and salt. The “endothermic effect” of this mixture draws heat from the adjacent liquid, allowing people to freeze liquids and, incidentally, to make ice cream.
Ice cream’s European debut probably took place in Italy, probably in Naples, probably in the latter part of the 17th-century. It spread through the royal houses of Europe. Early English sources mention a 1671 feast of King Charles II where “one plate of Ice Cream” was served and a 1688 banquet to celebrate the birth of the son of James II.
Ice cream began to appear in the American colonies during the first half of the eighteenth century. The first recorded instance of ice cream being served in America occurred in Maryland in 1744 when Governor Thomas Bladen included it on his dessert table. It was May, and the shock of having something frozen to eat in a warm month astonished the guests. One of them, William Black of Virginia, wrote of it in a letter, which survives today. Black mentions “a Dessert no less curious: Among the Rarities of which it was Compos’d, was some fine Ice Cream which, with the Strawberries and Milk, eat most Deliciously.”
Historians know of at least two royal governors who served ice cream at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg. A fierce hailstorm in July of 1758 gave Governor Francis Fauquier the chance to make ice cream in the summer. The hail was so large it broke every window on the north side of the palace, and when it was collected—doubtlessly not by the governor himself—“he cooled his wine, and froze cream, with some of them the next day.” It was Fauquier’s first year in Williamsburg and his first exposure to the peculiar violence of American weather. Ten years later, his successor, Lord Botetourt, arrived in Williamsburg where he served as governor until his untimely death in 1770. The inventory of Botetourt’s belongings taken after his death included many pewter ice molds which would have been used to form ice cream into pretty shapes.
So a few wealthy Americans were eating ice cream long before Thomas Jefferson went to France in 1784 as American ambassador to the French court. Although Jefferson did not introduce ice cream to America, he did encounter it in Paris, and he enjoyed it enough to jot down a recipe that calls for “2. bottles of good cream. 6. yolks of eggs. 1/2 lb. sugar” to be flavored with vanilla and frozen in a “sabottiere.” A 1796 inventory lists “2 freising molds” in the kitchen, so his servants were making ice cream at least that early. When he was president, Jefferson had an ice house built for the President’s House—what we today call the White House—and on Independence Day in 1806, hired a servant to turn the ice cream maker. For many, this was their introduction to ice cream, hence the belief that Jefferson brought the dish to America.
Martha Washington did not invent ice cream any more than Jefferson or Dolley Madison, but she served it at Mount Vernon on many occasions. The Washingtons acquired a “cream machine for ice” in 1784, the same year George directed his estate manager to build an ice house on his estate.
For more information, see history.org/Foundation/journal/Spring10/icecream.cfm, Harvest of the Cold Months by Elizabeth David, and podcast.history.org/2010/06/07/ice-cream/, or watch a video about making ice cream the colonial way at history.org/media/videoplayer/?cat=vodcast&file=IceCream.