I have been mesmerized by a new book, Who Ate the First Oyster?, which chronicles human stories of individual firsts: the first oyster eater, first cave painter, first to commit murder &c. Author Cody Cassidy uses anthropology and biology to put a face in front of the brain behind each of these inventions, a brilliant way to de-science the work. The book is full of surprises from the very beginning, where Cassidy explains the Very First Invention, which is … well… I can’t tell you or I would be responsible for revealing all the fun parts.
Cassidy also explains that the timeline is compressed, meaning most of human advancements–even the early inventions in his book–occur in a teeny-tiny space at the very end of his timeline. I wish to do Cassidy’s book justice, but, rather than planting Spoiler Alerts over the next seven paragraphs, I thought I might take a different angle. Riffing on this writer’s approach, I would like to give a brief history of the invention that represents the most important contribution to civilization as we know it. Of course, I’m talking about how humans acquired Ice Cream.
Well, maybe fire was more important. And writing. Counting. Computers? Space flight? Ice cream would be right in there, somewhere. Strangely enough, you wouldn’t need fire, writing, counting, computers, or space flight in order to make ice cream, so It Stands Alone. But it starts with harnessing the power of Ice!
Ice in the Desert: Yakhchāl
You might have heard of Babylon or even Ur, if you read about ancient cities, but you might not have heard of Mari, one of the oldest planned cities from the Fertile Crescent where civilization emerged. Mari’s clever but lesser-known King Zimri-Lim had scribes who described the construction of his ice house. They carefully noted, in their 1780 BC cuneiform, that “never before had any king built” such a marvel. Surely, we can imagine King Z-L walking foreign dignitaries through the grounds of his expansive palace, waving vaguely in the direction of a strange-looking domed building. “Oh, over there? That’s a new creation of my underlings, which provides frozen water at my command.”
We don’t have a picture of the king’s marvelous ice house. However, more than a millennium later, by approximately 400 BCE, the Persian Empire had developed a peculiar but effective structure for storing ice, even in the desert. The scientists under Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes, Darius II, Xerxes II–well, you get the drift–by 400 BCE there was large-scale irrigation through qanats, underground acqueducts. One of those underling scientists had figured out that water below ground was very much colder–aHA! The water could be gathered in pools. But how to keep it cold? That’s where the yakhchāl came in.
The dome structure of the yakhchāl extended upwards to a peak with a hole in the top but also had vents near the bottom for air to come in. The hotter portion of the air would rise up and out, while the colder air would drop downward, further cooling the pool of water. The qanats even channeled water in on the north side, the coolest side, to speed up the freezing process. Thus, Artaxerxes and friends could create ancient Icees, flavored with pomegranate, orange, or lemon juice. How the ices developed next becomes a bit of a philosophical debate.Continue reading “Who Invented Ice Cream?”