Tag Archives: Persia

Ice cream.

The delicious history of ice cream throughout the ages

Who doesn’t love ice cream? Less clear cut, however, is who invented it. We don’t know for sure how ice cream came to be but here’s what we do know about its history.

Ice cream.

Image via Pixabay.

The first brush Europeans had with something resembling ice-cream was likely around the 1300s, when explorer Marco Polo returned to Italy from China. Along with his wild stories of adventure and exotic lands, Polo also bore the recipe for a dessert we’d call sherbet or sorbet. Later on, this recipe likely evolved into the ice cream we know and love today sometime during the 16th century. It really came into its own during the 20th century, with the advent of new refrigeration techniques that allowed for the mass production of ice cream.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves — let’s not start eating this treat from the cone up, as it were. The story of ice-cream (what we know of it, at least) starts, surprisingly enough, in Antiquity.

Ice Cream Age

To the best of our knowledge, ice cream first reared its refreshing head in the Persian empire of yore. We don’t know, for sure, who first came up with the idea or when. However, around 500 B.C., we have evidence of the Persians mixing ice with grape juice, fruit juice, or other pleasantly-tasting flavors to produce an ice-cream-like treat. Needless to say, during that time and especially in that place (the Persian Empire stretched from India to Egypt and Turkey, so it was a very hot place generally) this delicacy was very hard and very expensive to produce, making it a noble or royal dish.

Their ice cream more closely resembled what we’d call sorbet today in texture and taste. Still, it was highly-regarded due to its scarcity and was probably greatly enjoyed in the Persian heat by those who could afford it.

Eventually, the Persian Empire met its maker in the form of one Alexander the Great, who waged war on them for about ten years. Warmaking is hot, tiring stuff, and accounts from Alexander’s campaigns say he took a particular liking to the local “fruit ices”, which are described as a honey-sweetened dish chilled using snow. The Persian dessert further evolved through time and was inherited by Iranians in the form of faloodeh, a traditional chilled dessert. Following the Muslim conquest of Persia in 651 AD, the Arab world also adopted this dish.


This is sherbet.
Image credits Elizabeth Rose.

Likely through Alexander’s phalangites returning home from their campaigns, ice cream was gradually introduced to early Western societies, eventually finding its way to the Emperor’s court in Rome. Icecreamhistory cites “tales from this period” telling of “armies of runners, who carried ice from mountains to big Roman cities during summers”, showcasing how appreciated the dish became among Roman nobles and Emperors. Emperor Nero is recorded as being a big fan of the dessert.

Ice cream R&D was going strong in China and Arab countries during the 9th to 11th centuries. Around this time, confectioners started experimenting with milk-based ice creams, more akin to the ones we enjoy today. Their ideas slowly made their way to Europe on the backs of traders and wanderers such as Marco Polo. The strong Mediterranean economic presence of the Italian city-states at the time, especially their trade with Muslim countries, put them in a unique position to draw on these ideas, which is why the country has such a strong tradition of ice cream making to this day.

The fact that ice cream was definitely still rare and expensive to produce at this time likely helped fuel its development, alongside that of refrigeration techniques, as there was a lot of money to be made in the business at the time. However, it also kept ice cream from becoming the widely-enjoyed treat that it is today. With a hefty price tag, and in the absence of any means of effectively storing ice or snow, it remained a very exclusive dish up until the 17th or 18th century in Europe.

The Icedustrial Revolution

There is some debate as to where ice cream first made its European debut. “Cream Ice” as it was known there at the time, made its way to England sometime in the 16th century. During the 17th century, it was a regular fixture at the table of Charles I. France got its first taste of the desert in 1553 after Catherine de Medici (Italian) wed Henry II of France.

However, everybody seems to agree that ice cream was first made available to the general public in 1660, when a Sicilian man named Procopio Cutò introduced a recipe of frozen milk, cream, butter, and eggs (gelato) at Café Procope (called the oldest café in Paris), which he owned. Procopio is credited as the inventor of gelato.

New production and refrigeration methods allowed ice and ice cream to be produced in greater quantities, and cheaper than ever before. The dessert made its way to America on the backs of these technologies in the mid-17th century, and after a few decades became available to the general public. Around 1850, large commercial entities started dabbling in the production and sale of ice cream, which further brought costs down and allowed more people than ever to enjoy the frozen treat.

The biggest single boon for ice cream was the advent of commercially-available, continuous electrical refrigeration after World War I. The ability to store ice cream for long periods of time without damaging it practically gave the industry wings; production during this time rose hundredfold, especially in the United States that escaped the war unravaged, which brought prices down to unheard-of-before lows.

Ice cream truck.

And to new neighborhoods.
Image credits Leonie Schoppema.

Ice cream also gained an unexpected boost on global markets during World War II, when both flash-frozen and dried ice creams became part of the official US Army combat rations. These were distributed to US soldiers in every and all theater of operations: Europe, North Africa, East Asia, and the Pacific fronts. In fact, ice cream played a central role in keeping up US soldiers’ calorie intake,  as well as their morale and fighting spirit. An article in The Atlantic that looks at the role of ice cream in the American war effort during World War II (it’s a very good piece, do give it a read) cites an editorial in the May 1918 issue of The Ice Cream Review, a monthly trade magazine, that shows where this treat fit into military life during the first world war.

“In this country every medical hospital uses ice cream as a food and doctors would not know how to do without it. But what of our wounded and sick boys in France? Are they to lie in bed wishing for a dish of good old American ice cream? They are up to the present, for ice cream and ices are taboo in France,” The Ice Cream Review wrote. “It clearly is the duty of the Surgeon General or some other officer to demand that a supply be forthcoming.”

You could chalk those lines up to industry lobbying — and it’s probably exactly what that was. But by 1942, the situation had changed dramatically. Whether as a result of lobbying, of grassroots support from GIs, or simply out of a desire to give those on the front the best comforts one could realistically provide them with, ice cream was often seen on American lines.

When the U.S.S. Lexington, the second-largest aircraft carrier in the US Navy at the time, had to be scuttled to avoid capture by Japanese forces, “the crew abandoned ship — but not before breaking into the freezer and eating all the ice cream. Survivors describe scooping ice cream into their helmets and licking them clean before lowering themselves into the Pacific,” the article explains.

“The U.S. Navy spent $1 million in 1945 converting a concrete barge into a floating ice-cream factory to be towed around the Pacific, distributing ice cream to ships incapable of making their own,” Matt Siegel wrote for The Atlantic. “It held more than 2,000 gallons of ice cream and churned out 10 gallons every seven minutes.”

“Not to be outdone, the U.S. Army constructed miniature ice-cream factories on the front lines and began delivering individual cartons to foxholes. This was in addition to the hundreds of millions of gallons of ice-cream mix they manufactured annually, shipping more than 135 million pounds of dehydrated ice cream in a single year.”

Immediately after the war, ice cream was perceived as an American invention. It’s not hard to understand why. Most of the industrialized world had been bombed halfway back to the stone age in not one but two massive conflicts, so frozen dessert wasn’t high on anybody else’s to-do list. Hollywood also helped promote ice cream, which was regularly included in movies and its overarching culture. The icy appeal of ice cream proved irresistible, and as the world dragged itself out of the rubble and horror of war, other countries started churning out their own. This period also saw a great deal of experimentation with and development of new types of ice cream, most notably the soft ice cream and sundae varieties that are highly-appreciated to this day.

Pizza Slice.

A look at how the world invented pizza

Thin, inviting, and delicious, pizza has a unique place in many people’s hearts (and bellies). Pizza today is considered the quintessential Italian dish, but many other cultures around the world have also created pizza-like dishes. So grab a slice and let’s take a look at the history of pizza.

Pizza Slice.

Image via Pixabay.

There’s some debate as to where the term “pizza” comes from. One of the prevailing theories, however, is that it comes from the Latin pitta, a type of flatbread. And, to the best of our knowledge, that is exactly how pizza started out: flatbread with extra toppings meant to give it flavor.

Flavor up!

But this idea didn’t originate in Italy. Or, more to the point, it didn’t only originate in Italy.

The fact is that ancient peoples loved bread. For many reasons. Grain kept relatively well in a world bereft of refrigerators, and bread is one of the more enjoyable ways to eat it. It was also among the cheaper foodstuffs, generally, as grain is easy to produce, ship, and process in large quantities. Finally, bread is also quite dense in protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and calories — especially whole-grain bread, which our ancestors ate. Bread doesn’t particularly shine in the taste department, however. Sure, it’s easy to carry and it will get you full, but it’s not very exciting on the palate.

This is perhaps why, as Genevieve Thiers writes in the History of Pizza, soldiers of the Persian King Darius I “baked a kind of bread flat upon their shields and then covered it with cheese and dates” as early as the 6th century B.C. The Greeks (they used to fight the Persians a lot) seem to have later adopted and adapted this dish for their own tables.

Naan bread.

Naan bread, apart from being delicious, can be seen as far-flung relative of pizza.
Image credits Jason Goh.

It was pretty common for ancient Greeks to mix olive oil, cheese, and various herbs into their bread — again, all in the name of flavor. But it seems that contact with Persian soldiers added a twist or two to the tradition, according to Thiers, and Greece started baking “round, flat” bread with a variety of toppings such as meats, fruits, and vegetables.

One interesting bit evidence of this culinary development comes from the Aeneid, an epic poem written around 30 or 20 B.C. In the work, Aeneas and his men (who were running away from Greek-obliterated Troy) receive a prophecy/curse from Celaeno (queen of the harpies). Caleano told him that his group will “have reached [their] promised land” when they “arrive at a place so tired and hungry that [they] eat [their] tables”. When the party came ashore mainland Italy they gathered some “fruits of the field” and placed them on top of the only food they had left — stale round loaves of bread.

The use of hardened bread or crusts of bread in lieu of bowls was quite common in antiquity and the middle ages. So the group’s actions can be seen as them putting the food — the fruits of the field — on a plate, or a table, rather than being used as a topping. Still, famished, the adventurers quickly ate the plants, and then moved on to the ‘plates’ of bread. Aeneas’ son, Ascanius, then remarks that the group has “even eaten the tables” (“etiam mensas consumimus!” Aeniad Book IV), fulfilling the prophecy.

Aeneas fleeing Troy.

Painting by Pompeo Batoni, “Aeneas fleeing from Troy”, 1753. He’s carrying his father, Anchises. Also shown are his first wife, Creusa, and their child, Ascanius.
Image credits Galleria Sabauda.

Italian cuisine

The ‘pizzas’ we’ve talked about up to now are far from unique. Cultures around the world have developed their own brand of goodie-laden bread. Flatbreads, naan, and plakountas are all early preparations that could be considered cousins to the modern pizza, and they sprung up from ancient Greece to India, from Persia to Egypt. However, it would be kind of a stretch to call them pizza; they’re certainly not what you’d expect to see inside a pizza box today.

One Greek settlement would become the forefront of pizza as we know it: Naples. The city was founded by Greek colonists in the shadow of Vesuvius around 600 B.C. Writing in Pizza: A Global History, Carol Helstosky explains that by the 1700s and early 1800s, Naples was a thriving waterfront city — and, technically at least, an independent kingdom.


Painted lithography showing a group of lazzaroni. Author: Silvestro Bossi.
Image in the public domain, via Wikimedia.

The city was famous for its many lazzaroni, or working poor. They needed inexpensive food that could be consumed quickly, for the lazzaroni had neither the time nor the money to invest in their meals. Many street vendors and other informal “restaurants” catered to their need, primarily offering flatbreads with various toppings (as per the area’s Greek heritage). By this time, Naples’ flatbreads featured all the hallmarks of today’s pizzas: tomatoes (which were brought over from the Americas), cheese, oil, anchovies, and garlic.

Still, the dish wasn’t enjoying widespread appeal or recognition at this time. Pizza was considered a poor man’s dish, partially due to the lazzaroni, partly due to the fact that tomatoes were considered poisonous at the time. Wealthy people, you see, used to dine from pewter (a lead alloy) plates at the time. Tomatoes, being somewhat acidic, would leach lead out of the plates into food — which would eventually kill these wealthy people. The tomatoes were blamed, and that made them cheap. The lazzaroni were poor and hungry, so the tomato was right up their alley. Luckily for the lazzaroni, pewter plates were expensive, so they weren’t poisoned.

“Judgmental Italian authors often called [the lazzaroni’s] eating habits ‘disgusting,'” Helstosky notes.

Pizza got its big break around 1889. After the kingdom of Italy unified in 1861, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples, Thiers writes. It’s not exactly known how but they ended up being served ‘pies’ made by Raffaele Esposito, often hailed as the father of modern pizza. Legend has it that the royal pair was bored with the French cuisine they were being offered, although Europeans love bad-mouthing their neighbors and especially their neighbors’ foods, so that may not be completely factual.

“He first experimented with adding only cheese to bread, then added sauce underneath it and let the dough take the shape of a large round pie,” Theirs explains.

Esposito is said to have made three of his pies/pizzas. The story goes that the one the Queen favored most showcased the three colors on Italy’s flag — green basil, white mozzarella, and red tomatoes. Whether this was a coincidence or by design, we’ll never know. But you can pick the story you like most. Esposito named his pizza “Margherita” in honor of the Queen, although today it’s more commonly referred to as ‘cheese pizza’.

From there, pizza has only reached greater heights. It established itself as an iconic Italian dish, first in Italy and later within Europe. America’s love of pizza began with Italian immigrants and was later propelled by soldiers who fought — and ate — in Italy during the Second World War.

Today, it’s a staple in both fast-food and fancy restaurants, can be bought frozen, or can be prepared at home (it’s quite good fun with the right mates). I think it’s fair to say that although Persia’s soldiers couldn’t conquer the world, their food certainly did.