Ice Cream: A Global History by Laura B. Weiss (Reaktion Books, Apr.) tells the story of the world's most popular dessert, from ancient China to today's artisanal flavors. Here, Weiss talks about her research and what goes into New Zealand's "hokey pokey" ice cream.
Your book makes it abundantly clear that ice cream is popular the world over. Did you come across any places in your research that don’t serve ice cream?
I didn't come across any place without some variety of ice cream. Even Russians, with their harsh winters, love ice cream. Israelis love it. Arabs love it. The Chinese are mad for ice cream. Americans, of course, consider it their national dessert. I didn't look at Africa. It's possible ice cream isn't as popular there, but it truly seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.
The demise of the soda fountain is a sad reality, isn't it? Is today’s equivalent the Good Humour truck, or Ben & Jerry’s? Or do neither of them really fill that void?
Yes, it's a total bummer, but don't despair. There are still some old-time soda fountains around. One of my favorites is Star Confectionery in Riverhead, Long Island [New York], which still has its original stained glass windows and marble counter. The same family has owned it for 100 years. I recently had some really good ice cream at Leopold's in Savannah. There are also some new soda fountains that are trying to recreate the old-time look and feel, like the Franklin Fountain in Philadelphia. As for Good Humor and Ben & Jerry's, they're both great. But the Good Humor man is basically extinct and while I love Ben & Jerry's, I think of it as something to gorge on while watching TV. The beauty of the old soda fountains wasn't just watching the soda jerk create fabulous ice cream treats like cones and sundaes. Fountains and parlors were also community gathering places, where you went with a special date or with friends or to celebrate some special occasion like a birthday. I can't think of anything today that quite duplicates that.
It’s interesting that ice cream is New Zealand’s national dessert. What is their ice cream like? Any exotic flavors you don’t typically find here?
A favorite ice cream treat is the hokey pokey: vanilla ice cream studded with chunks of toffee. According to the New Zealand Ice Cream Association, it's Kiwis' most popular flavor, outranked only by vanilla.
Out of all the varieties of ice cream you encountered researching this book, which was your favorite and which did you like the least?
Latini, who was a pioneering 17th-century Italian confectioner, made pine cone sorbet, which sounds positively dreadful. But to be honest, the part of the book that made me really want to run out and get ice cream was the section on soft serve. Devouring a chocolate soft serve cone dipped in chocolate on a hot summer night is one of life's most divine culinary experiences.
Cup or cone?
Oh, cone, of course! Is there any other way to eat ice cream? And if you play it right, you get to lick the drippings off your fingers. But the best part is that final bite when you pop the tip of the cone and that last tiny bit of ice cream into your mouth. There's no more perfect finish to an eating experience, at least not for me.