June/July/Aug 2009

Sweet Truth

Appreciations of ice cream and cake celebrate the deliciously fattening over the guiltily consumed fake.

Melanie Rehak


Once upon a time, in a land I'd like to visit for dessert—before Skinny Cow and Tasti D-Lite and before America came along and voted plain old vanilla its favorite flavor year after year after year—ice cream was serious stuff. It was so serious, in fact, that people believed it could be deadly. Though sharbat, a fruity drink served over snow or ice, existed in the Middle East in medieval times, the Western world was slow to catch on. Hundreds of years later, Europe was still in thrall to the lingering Hippocratic idea that "suddenly throwing the body into a different state" by ingesting something frozen could be disastrous. In Ice Cream: The Delicious History (Overlook, $20), Marilyn Powell notes that "seizures, blindness, paralysis, heart attack, and apoplexy were all promised repercussions from the ingestion of cold."

It was not until the eighteenth century that ice cream and ices shed their stigma and became serious in a new way, as something every chef should study—and trés chic to boot. European travelers had by that time been to Persia and Turkey and brought back tales of icy libations made with lemon and violet flowers. In the words of one enthusiast, a sherbet (which was what the English decided it was called) was "a drink that quenches thirst and tastes deliciously." From there, as Powell writes, "the age of ice cream was well and truly under way."

And what an age it was! It began with a bang in 1768 when the fabulously one-named French chef Emy, who comes off like a proto–Top Chef judge in Jeri Quinzio's Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making (University of California Press, $25), published a tome with the hilariously authoritative title The art of making ices for the office; or the real principles behind freezing all kinds of cold treats. The way to prepare all sorts of mixtures, how to mold them into the shape of fruits, cannelons and many cheeses. All explained precisely and according to present usage. Along with a treatise on mousses. This work is very useful for all those who make ices and ice creams. (Apparently, molding your ice cream to look like savory food in order to astonish your visitors was all the rage in those days; both Quinzio and Powell, whose books cover much the same ground, relate stories of this ilk, though Quinzio's is a much better read.) Just a few years after Emy's masterwork appeared, a Neapolitan physician named Filippo Baldini came out with what Quinzio refers to as "a treatise on the health benefits of ices and ice creams called De sorbetti. . . . The book has no recipes; rather, it is one long argument in favor of eating ices and ice creams." (Note to self: Surely this project deserves an update.) That Baldini "thought [sugar] was nearly perfect, and cited the example of a man who lived to be one hundred as a result of consuming large quantities of sugar every day," only makes me love him more.

Ice cream was king, and though America was late to the game when it came to icy treats—it wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that ice cream was even widely available to the public—we soon made up for it, with characteristic excess. In 1850, the women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book asserted that ice cream was "one of the necessary luxuries of life." By the end of the century, the ice-cream soda and the ice-cream sundae were everywhere, and in 1904, the ice-cream cone was, if not invented, mass-distributed for the first time at the famous Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Temperance and Prohibition helped the cause, too: As the editor of the Ice Cream Trade Journal noted five years later, "Even in New York the effect of the great moral craze is being noted. There are 800 fewer saloons in New York County this year than last, and ice cream parlors are springing up on all sides."

In 1921, the commissioner of Ellis Island gave ice cream the official stamp of approval by including it in the first meal offered to immigrants when they arrived on American soil, and by 1930, Americans were consuming nine quarts apiece annually, while the exploding ice-cream industry produced 277 million gallons of the stuff a year to keep up. In 1956, we hit twenty quarts per person, and today, we've upped the ante to twenty-two quarts—one ton over the course of a lifetime.

We also, of course, eat an incredible amount of fake ice cream. Neither author offers a figure, but in a world where 1921's hit ice-cream novelty, the Eskimo Pie, has been replaced by the Slender Pie (artificially sweetened, 98 percent fat free, and yet still 100 percent larger than its predecessor, thanks to the injection of air), it's a safe bet the number is huge. As the people who market ice cream know better than anyone, eating in America has been tempered by guilt about taking pleasure in doing so practically since the Puritans got their shock.

Leslie F. Miller's Let Me Eat Cake: A Celebration of Flour, Sugar, Butter, Eggs, Vanilla, Baking Powder, and a Pinch of Salt (Simon & Schuster, $25) is as much a testimony to our national food neuroses as it is a paean to baked goods. Miller does indeed love cake—her characteristically grandiose opening sentence is "Cake is a close approximation of God"—but she's painfully conflicted about it. She is obsessed both because she thinks she shouldn't have it and because she thinks she should (and eat it, too). At parties, she gets nervous when she thinks she might not get a piece, but she also confesses miserably that writing her book is "a little like a junkie's excuse to stay close to her addiction."

Mixed right in with recipes for buttercream frosting and sour-cream cake are guilty admissions about eating cake out of the trash and off the abandoned birthday plates of "strange eight-year-old boys," and there is enough of this kind of thing to obscure the many interesting facts Miller digs up. (Did you know, for instance, that Marie Antoinette never actually said "Let them eat cake"?) She references her weight (and other people's) constantly, referring at one point to the many varieties of cake indigenous to the southern United States as "butt-widening favorites, like caramel, coconut, carrot, chocolate and blueberry." About packaged snack cakes, she has this to say: "You beg for them when you're seven, and then you blame them for your eating disorder when you're forty-seven."

But it's in her final question to the magnificently portrayed Duff Goldman, the badass baker star of the Food Network show Ace of Cakes, that Miller most baldly reveals herself. After describing Goldman's workroom as a decadent riot of sugar and icing and sparkles, a Wonka factory in miniature, she asks him, "Would [you] ever endeavor to create a low-carb cake, for people like me?"

Which brings me back to that preference for vanilla ice cream—a true love for some, but for most, I suspect, a way to make an indulgence seem a little less indulgent—and also to all the ice-cream substitutes that Powell deems "counterfeit." "I find myself wondering," she writes, "what Francis Bacon [who was fascinated by the concept of freezing things] and company back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would make of our brave new world of frozen desserts and designer ice creams: low cholesterol, low carb, vegetarian, non-dairy kosher, frozen yogurt for the conscientiously healthy, and tofu-based and bean-curd-based for the lactose intolerant. What you see isn't all you get."

The wistful longing in her tone isn't just about ice cream, of course. It's about our loss of innocence when it comes to food. We've become so expert at trading one addiction for another that we can rationalize eating or not eating almost anything in the name of health, weight loss, or progress. Of late, there have been many calls for a return to "real" food, some earnest and heartfelt, others merely trend-driven, but there is a general understanding, with which I happen to agree, that it's time for us to get back to the basics.

And what better place to start than dessert? Try as I might, I can't find a way to state the case more forcefully than Goldman does in response to Miller's question about low-carb cake. "If you need cake, eat the cake," he says, speaking truth to all-powerful diet fad. "If you can't have cake, have an apple. . . . There's cake, and then there's stuff that's not cake. It's something else."

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners, which is forthcoming next year from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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