Ambrosia in a Cone

It's tasty, versatile, loved by all... and some dieticians believe it's healthy enough to eat on its own. Could ice cream be God's favourite food?

Filmmaker and ice cream fan Joe Kenny ponders the transcendental delights of toasted coconut ice cream
Sri Chinmoy believes that God must be an ice cream fan.     This seems like an unusual suggestion from Sri Chinmoy. As a leading proponent of both inner and outer health, someone who advocates sport, exercise and vegetarianism, how could he possibly praise a food that must surely share the blame for countless cases of flabbiness, poor health and tooth decay?     “God does like ice cream,” he explained in 1977, “because ice cream is the food of human beings who love the childlike consciousness… Because He is an eternal Child, He eternally likes ice cream.”     Ice cream might be healthier than your mother told you. Some dieticians have claimed that good-quality ice cream actually provides all the nutrients required for a meal. A few connoisseurs have responded to that wisdom by practising the ice cream diet, in which one meal a day (usually dinner) is replaced by ice cream. As this writer is not a nutritionist, I am in no position to say whether this works (though I certainly want it to be true).     But whether you have it as a meal, a dessert, or a snack, it is worth saluting one of God’s favourite foods.     It has a long and mostly obscure history. The Chinese, as we know, were one of the most innovative ancient civilisations, introducing paper, gunpowder, fireworks and many other things to the world. But easily their greatest invention was ice treats. Despite popular legend, these were not ice creams as such, but non-dairy frozen sweets, similar to what you would probably call an “icy pole” or a “sno-cone” (depending on where you were from). The Romans had their own version, and the Emperor Nero was especially partial, ordering slaves to collect fresh snow from the mountains and rush back to his palace before the snow melted, so it could be transformed into fruit-flavoured sweets. As this was 1800 years before refrigeration, it could not have been the summer treat that it is today.     Ice cream was probably invented around the seventeenth century. It is unknown who deserves the credit, but it was almost certainly a continental European chef. Charles I of England (who was probably blessed with an Italian or French chef) made this new dessert a staple of the royal table. Most of his subjects were denied its charms, but after his death, it became a favourite with the upper classes. Among its fans was American “renaissance man” Thomas Jefferson, a frequent traveller to Europe.     Jefferson was perhaps the most brilliant man ever to become US President – a naturalist, lawyer, inventor, scientist and political visionary. He wrote the Declaration of Independence and founded the University of Virginia. But by far his most wondrous achievement was bringing ice cream across the Atlantic to America. At a time when the recipe for ice cream was almost as closely guarded a secret as the present-day recipe for Coca-Cola, Jefferson brought a recipe for vanilla ice cream to the colony (for which the then-President, George Washington, reportedly paid handsomely). A version of this recipe allegedly still exists, but as this version requires a hand-crank ice cream freezer – which wasn’t patented until 1847, more than 20 years after his death – this was probably an updated version of Jefferson’s recipe.     In the years before electric refrigerators, the hand-crank freezer made all the difference. An American milk dealer, trying to keep a steady demand for cream, began mass-producing ice cream in 1851, building ice storage units and larger versions of the hand-crank machine. It is perhaps no surprise that it was America – the land that takes credit for hot dogs and sugar-coated breakfast cereal – that turned ice cream into an industry, no longer just an elite pleasure. In 1899, five million gallons of ice cream were produced in America.     Its popularity grew exponentially. Ten years later, 30 million gallons were produced in the US alone. Another ten years on, that amount had increased to 150 million gallons. In 1930, dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) was introduced commercially for the purpose of keeping ice cream cold. (It had other uses as well, but that was the most crucial one.)     Another historical milestone was the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, best known as the St Louis World's Fair. This historic event – which attracted an astounding 20 million people to Missouri’s capital city – unveiled the twentieth century in all its then-futuristic glory. It showcased a new advance called air-conditioning, an entire summer of ice-skating, and telephone connections to cities 1500 miles away. But the most important innovation, without a doubt, was the ice cream cone.     Like ice cream itself, the origins of the cone are debatable. The most popular story is that, during the hot Missouri summer, demand for ice cream was so great that one vendor ran out of paper plates. A vendor next to him, coming to his aid, rolled his zalabia (Syrian waffles) into cones, making a handy container. Another story is that ice creams were being sold in sandwiches, between two waffles. One salesman bought one such sandwich for a lady friend, along with flowers. Lacking a vase, the lady curled one of the waffles into a vase, then rolled the other one into a cone. (This is very romantic, but for practical purposes, fairly unlikely.)     A waffle iron for making ice cream cones was patented by a New York vendor in 1903 – a year before the World’s Fair – which effectively ruins two perfectly good stories. Nonetheless, it was after the fair that cones suddenly became a popular ice cream holder, even though a machine to mass-produce them was not patented until 1924.     Though ice cream became the people’s delicacy in America, it has been developed and perfected over the years in several nations, taking numerous appealing varieties from Indian kulfi to dairy-free ice cream made of chilled fruit, with no cream at all. The Chinese, proving that they are still innovative, have perfected the seemingly impossible delicacy of deep-fried ice cream, a popular dessert item in their restaurants.     Arguably the world’s best ice cream parlours are the gelato bars of Italy, which is appropriate. As the inventor of ice cream was possibly Italian, and the inventor of the ice cream cone (or at least, the patent-holder) was an Italian-American migrant, it would seem that Italy has made an even greater contribution to the culinary arts than its highly-praised pasta dishes.     Yet while pasta has fallen from favour in recent years, with dieticians encouraging a low-carb, low-fat (and hence, low-spaghetti) diet, ice cream’s reputation has, if anything, improved. Nutritional evils, as we now realise, do not stop at sugar and milk fats. A little ice cream might even be – and here’s a controversial suggestion – good for you!     One of the proudest (if least qualified) claims from the ice cream industry, made over 50 years ago, can still be seen in the Australian country town of Gundagai. There stands a milk bar (an Aussie version of the American-style delicatessen or soda parlour) that remains almost frozen in time. Though the counter now has up-to-date brands of candy and sweet drinks, the ornaments, the furniture, even the wall advertising is basically as it was in 1953 when the newly-crowned Queen of England, passing through the town, happened to visit.     Taking up most of the back wall is a large advertisement: “Peter’s Ice Cream – The Health Food of a Nation”.     Even considering that Australians in 1953 consumed copious amounts of meat pies and gravy, it was an unusual concept of “health food”. Nowadays, Aussies would be more cynical about such claims. At the same time, there are more ice cream parlours in Australia – and considerably more flavours – than ever before.     In an effort to find Australia’s best ice creams, gelatos and sorbets, this writer decided to scour the nation’s ice cream parlours. Six friends valiantly agreed to aid me in this quest, so over the space of a weekend, we sampled a total of 75 flavours, in the ice cream parlours of Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra. We tried everything from the common favourites (chocolate, strawberry, coffee, lemon sorbet, banana) to rarer delicacies like Asian ginger fig, lychee and toasted coconut, not to mention the varied uses of chocolate (from white chocodamia mania to chocolate peanut butter swirl), and healthy flavours like guava and orange sorbet. One Melbourne connoisseur, after running a half-marathon, rewarded himself with five flavours in quick succession, including chilli chocolate and gingerbread. Another ice cream fan, busy all weekend, finally found time at the end to visit some of the ice creameries in one of Brisbane’s bohemian districts, exploring the delights of ricotta, rose petal and burnt caramel, among many others. All we gourmets are currently writing our reviews.     The verdict? Well, as nobody tried every flavour (the phrase “too much of a good thing” come to mind), we won’t try to name the best. But our survey proved that, yes, eating plenty of ice cream has its benefits.     Of course, we didn’t need a survey to tell us that, but this method was more fun. Besides, everyone still seems to be in good health. If God likes it, what could be healthier? Perhaps those on the ice cream diet know exactly what they are doing...