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.
At least one expert on ancient Greece theorized that Plato might have used ice cream to explain the concept of akrasia, the idea that people sometimes perform actions not in their own best interests. Scholar Cynthia Hampton argues in “Pleasure, Truth and Being in Pluto’s Philebus” that Plato might have envisioned an ancient Greek dieter stuck between going without for the greater good of the body or giving in for the greater good of the lizard brain.
The dieter’s akrasia is generated by the interplay between the true belief he rationally holds, i.e. that it is better to be physically fit than to eat the ice cream, and an opposing nonrational belief that ice cream is pleasant and therefore good to pursue.Cynthia Hampton writing for the journal Phronesis, which is ancient Greek for smarty-pants
But this Platonic anecdote has two inherent problems. First, Plato would clearly be confused if he ever devised an example where ice cream would not be in someone’s best interests. How is that possible? Physical fitness and ice cream are not diametrically opposed. It is the amount of ice cream, not the Platonic “idea” of ice cream that is the problem. Secondly, the Greeks didn’t appear to have ice houses. It’s true that Alexander the Great, who knew some Greeks, was known to employ ice house “refrigeration” pits, but he apparently stumbled on the idea while on military campaigns in Persia and India. He didn’t bring back the idea to Greece, and no one in Persia or Greece mentions frozen milk. Not to mention that Alexander comes along after Plato. Plato didn’t eat no ice cream.
Other Scurrilous Lies about Ice Cream
This silly notion of ice-cream-slurping by Plato and Alexander is still widely spread on the Internet, accompanied by several other myths about ancient gourmands. Many sites, especially those promoted by Dairy Associations, blithely mention that Nero “may have” sent runners into the hills above Rome to capture ice for his feasts. This is unlikely. Romans didn’t put ice in their drinks because they noticed it gave them the flux. Romans kept their water sanitary by keeping it moving or filtering it through sand. Ice on a hillside was formed from a standing pool of water, meaning a standing pool of microbes. The first documented Roman ice house wasn’t until 300 CE, and it didn’t involve sending slaves to the mountains. No ice for Nero.
Meanwhile, there’s also a widely spread (and embellished) story about Catherine de Medici bringing ice cream and sorbets to the court of Henri II in France. That’s also not true: she would have been too young, and ice cream hadn’t made its way to Italy yet. Stories about Catherine and Nero are fake news, just like Betsy Ross sewing the American flag or Einstein waxing lyrical about compound interest.
The Persians, and later the Arabs, did have the ices. Where did the cream come in? For that, we travel much further east, to China.
The 94 Ice Men of the Tang Dynasty
The Chinese had discovered what the Indian and Egyptian cultures had known for centuries, the endothermic property of salt. In non-technical language, that means adding salt to ice assists in the freezing process. Of course, those of you who have ever made homemade ice cream already knew that faster than I could type NaCl. So several cultures could store and make ice.
It was somewhere during the Tang Dynasty (~620 CE) that a chef in King Shang’s entourage put together the salt, ice, and milk to create a special dessert. Shang employed 2271 chefs and wine stewards for the food in his palace, including 94 “ice men.” While the duties of the ice men aren’t described, one of those clever ice chefs created a frozen milk recipe, described as using fermented mare’s milk, kumis. Kumis was a common drink among the horse cultures from the steppes, the Mongolian version of beer.
According to Ice Creams, Sorbets & Gelati: The Definitive Guide–and what more definitive guide to life would you need than THAT?–Caroline and Robin Weir describe how our clever ice chef mixed frothy frozen kumis with flour and camphor to create a creamy consistency. Camphor is a tree extract that can be used as a lotion, thickener, mosquito repellent, perfume, or plastic. Like modern ice cream, best not to think about the ingredient list too closely.
Shang’s chef then added flavorings from honey, melon, and tea, and voila! ice cream. I hope King Shang rewarded him handsomely for that! Centuries later, poets were waxing…. poetic… about the heavenly mixture.
It looks so greasy but still has a crisp texture.Frozen milk, described by the Sung poet Yang Wanli (1127-1206)
It appears congealed and yet it seems to float,
Like jade, it breaks at the bottom of the dish;
As with snow, it melts in the light of the sun.
Exploring Ice Cream for Scientific Purposes
How exactly ice cream, ices, or the endothermic properties of salt made it over to Florence is not precisely known. It might have been Marco Polo or it might have been through the Arabs and Ottomans invading Sicily and southern Italy. Somehow, the techniques ended up with the Medicis. Not Catherine, however.
One more bit of fake news comes first. Several sites give credit to an architect named Bernardo Buontalenti for inventing gelatti. Buontalenti, though, built an ice house for the Medici’s in 1530, not a dessert cookbook. The Buontalenti story sounds like it was invented by a Buontalenti descendant acting as tour guide to Florence. Instead, two brothers, Cardinal Leopold and Grand Duke Ferdinand II de Medici, began extensive scientific experiments in the Accademia del Cimento. According to the Definitive Guide, these Medici geniuses conducted hundreds of carefully documented experiments in the 1650s on the different ways to freeze “sorbetti in the summer.” That means they knew what sorbetti was.
The word owes its etymology to the Arabs, who called their ices sharbats. The Medicis experimented, as good cook/scientists would, with flavoring from typical Arab standbys like rose water and cinnamon to unique Italian tastes like Chianti. Chianti ice cream? Might be somebody’s favorite (not mine). They did a lot of testing. Taste-testing. Meticulous records. For science. When we went to Italy, my wife explained we needed to try gelato every day, taste-testing for science. Who knew that she was so close to the Accademia del Cimento ideals?
Within ten years of the Accademia experiments, ices and ice creams began appearing at the banquet tables of Louis XIV in France and Charles II in England. By 1695, there were recipe books for sorbetti, and the culmination of all the work work by the Medici brothers, Shang’s chef, the Persians, and King Zimri-Lim had come to full fruition. It took a global village, but ice cream at last had taken its rightful place among the greatest of inventions.
Humanity evolved at last.
(For other less important inventions, like the wheel, read Cassidy’s book.)