The women who shaped American ice cream

You listening to Hamilton? Me too. Did you know that the first ice cream parlor in America opened in New York City in 1776? Woah. Anyway… I could go on about Revolutionary War-era America forever, but this week, I want to celebrate a few of the revolutionaries of ice cream—the women who shaped ice cream’s popularity in America. Everyone, give it up for the Founding Mothers of Ice Cream!

It was Dolley Madison who popularized ice cream in the White House.

Aunt Sallie Shadd was a freed slave who lived in Wilmington Delaware in the late 1700s. She owned a catering business and became famous for making a frozen blend of cream, sugar, and fruit. Legend has it Dolley Madison was so taken with this treat that she adapted it for use in the White House. One of Aunt Sallie Shadd’s descendants was Mary Ann Shadd, born in 1823 in Wilmington, and an important crusader for the abolition of slavery. Put your hands in the air for Aunt Sallie, America’s first Founding Mother of Ice Cream!

Ice cream has always been a popular presidential treat: George Washington had his own ice cream machine at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson was known to make asparagus ice cream and other garden varieties. But it was Dolley Madison, first lady and wife of fourth president James Madison, who popularized ice cream in the White House—possibly inspired by Aunt Sallie Shadd’s offerings. Dolley became famous for her concupiscent curds. She famously served ice cream at her husband’s second inaugural ball on March 4, 1813. On other occasions, she offered her dinner guests a molded pink dome of ice cream. Dolley’s favorite flavor was oyster ice cream, made using small, sweet oysters harvested from the nearby Potomac River. I’m sure it was awesome, but I prefer my oysters raw with mignonette, thank you very much. Hellooooooo Dolley! A founding mother of America, and another Founding Mother of Ice Cream!

Detail of Portrait of Dolley Payne Madison by Gilbert Stuart, 1804.

By the mid-1800s, ice cream fever was spreading. The first ice cream parlor in America had been open for decades, and we’d finally figured out how to store and ship ice. However, making ice cream was still a laborious process which involved removing a pot of custard from a bucket of freezing brine several times in order to stir it—that is, until a Philadelphia woman named Nancy Johnson invented a hand-cranked ice cream maker. Johnson’s solution was simple: instead of opening the bucket to stir the liquid by hand, she attached a hand crank to the outside of the bucket which twisted the pot on the inside.

The illustration from Nancy Johnson’s patent.

Her invention was a huge step forward for ice cream. It didn’t only make the process easier—it also made ice cream with a smoother texture. There are many new-fangled ways to make ice cream without churning it—CO2 rapid freeze, the anti-griddle—and they are all fab in their own way. But at Jeni’s, we make American scoop shop ice cream, with a churning step that’s absolutely essential.

Churning ice cream is a symphony of physics and timing. As the dasher turns, it removes a forest of ice crystals from the inside wall of the canister, forcing them to the center of the machine where they are tumbled into smoother, rounder pieces. The timing of this churning is essential so the ice crystals don’t grow too large, but also because air is also churned into the ice cream. A bit of air is essential to ice cream’s creaminess. With too much air, the ice cream becomes weak, crumbly, and airy; too little, and it’s an unscoopable brick of sweetened cream. By enabling constant churning, Nancy Johnson revolutionized the texture of ice cream. Yeah, Nancy Johnson! Founding mama of American ice cream!

Today, there are tons of ways to make ice cream, but for my tastes, nothing beats well-made American scoop shop ice cream. America has a long rich history of slow tweaks forward and many amazing women to thank for it.