It's very likely you've encountered Black Tap’s monstrous milkshakes flooding your Instagram feed. But if enduring the line to taste one in real life seemed like a needlessly painful effort, you could, at the very least, rely on a simple scoop of vanilla from another nearby parlor to satisfy your cravings. That may seem like a considerable downgrade, but your perspective might change in knowing that at one point in time, even something as, well, vanilla as vanilla, was in high demand. While the current arm's race to grab people’s attention with innovative ice-cream creations presents its own set of frustrations, realize that just being able to enjoy basic flavors like vanilla and chocolate used to be a luxury reserved for high society. Count yourself lucky.
That knowledge about ice cream's roots comes courtesy of Sarah Lohman, historic gastronomist and author of the soon-to-be-released Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, who spoke at The Museum of Food and Drink in conjunction with Haagen Dazs about the origins of ice-cream flavors and their complex past. Though the love of ice cream seems to be universal, the sweet treat originally began as a specialty for the elite. While it is true many countries had their own frozen treats, we can trace ice cream back to two foundational iterations: the ancient Eastern sherbati, originating in Persia, and the custard-based ice cream of the West, which is most similar to the kind we eat today. For both sherbati and custard ice cream, the process was time consuming and complicated. Making sherbati included a trek to the mountains to gather the snow needed to create it. Considering the resources required for its production, eating ice cream was a grand display wealth.
Sherbati, Lohman points out, really mimics the snow cones and shaved ice of today, with sugar syrup and flavored liquids poured on top to give it taste. Flavors included orange blossom, rosewater, jasmine, nut flavors, and musk—back then, anything that could be used as a perfume could be found in food, too. It wasn’t until the spice trade began that fruit flavors began to make an appearance in ice cream. Meanwhile in the West, scientists discovered that mixing salt with ice created a slush that lowered the freezing point of water, making it possible to cold process custard instead of heat-processing it. Drink flavors were commonly added for taste—think tea, coffee, and chocolate.
While Lohman referenced some of the earliest and most popular flavors that no longer top the charts (apparently lemon ice cream used to be a favorite in the 19th century), she focused on two classic ingredients, chocolate and vanilla, in her lecture, while also giving us some historical insight into the once popular and wildly strange whale byproduct, ambergris.
It wasn’t until the discovery of the Americas that chocolate and vanilla crept onto the scene, and indeed chocolate was the first. When the Spaniards took over Central America, they adopted the Mayan drink of chocolate. The concoction originally was flavored with chili, vanilla, and other local additives, and the spices that eventually created the Mexican hot chocolate that we are familiar with today were added later when the Spaniards took the drink back to Europe with them. Drinking chocolate was as elite as eating ice cream; cacao beans were used in Mayan culture as money, so drinking it meant you were rich enough to literally drink your wealth. Chocolate drinking in Europe was an elaborate affair with lots of gilded, intricate tools to create and consume it, so putting it in your ice cream was the next logical step.
Vanilla was brought into the fold alongside chocolate, but, as mentioned above, was initially used to bring more complexity to the chocolate drink. According to Lohman, the fundamental separation of the two occurred in France in a hot custard, likely the precursor to crème brûlée. From there, vanilla was added to ice cream, although it was still considered very rare as a flavor.
Vanilla beans come from an orchid that creates edible fruit. While French colonists managed to source some of the orchids to plant them in their own colonies, they could not get them to blossom until a slave named Edmond found a solution. Edmond's owner at the time took a liking to him and trained him in botany; at age 12, Edmond surprised him by creating a hand pollination technique that allowed the flowers to fruit, a technique that is still used today. Lohman noted that although vanilla was far from the first ice cream flavor, it has been the most popular one for the last 200 years, citing its complexity and its inability to cause flavor exhaustion.
While Thomas Jefferson has a well known recipe for vanilla ice cream, the first documented ice cream recipe was by Englishwoman Lady Anne Fanshawe in 1665. The recipe suggests flavoring the “icy cream” with orange blossom water, mace (a part of nutmeg), or ambergris.
Ambergris was a popular flavoring and perfume for only the richest. But what is ambergris? Ambergris forms when sperm whales cannot digest squid beaks; the beak gets stuck in the intestines where it is coated with a waxy substance and is somehow released (scientists are not sure if it passes or the whale dies). The ball of ambergris floats along the ocean surface until it’s washed ashore and collected. While fresh ambergris isn’t terribly valuable, Lohman says once it has floated around, curing in the sun and salt, it is worth more than its weight in gold.
Lohman has attempted ambergris ice cream twice, first using a mix of ambergris and grapeseed oil, which resulted in an extremely rich ice cream that she describes on her blog as starting off floral and ending with an aftertaste of “armpit.” She made it again in conjunction with the podcast Gastropod, where she used fresh(ish) ambergris that the host Nicola Twilley loved, calling it a more complex vanilla taste. Lohman described it as “floral, mossy, barnyard-y.” Though you won't be tasting ambergris ice cream at your local store anytime soon (it's currently illegal to buy and sell), you can be thankful that vanilla and chocolate are no longer only for the 1%.