The Evolution of America’s Beloved Ice Cream

America has a long-standing love affair with ice cream. It is the go-to treat for celebrations, consolation after a tough day, and healing after a heartbreak. Ice cream has become an integral part of our lives, and it’s no surprise that it consistently ranks as one of America’s favorite desserts.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American consumes a whopping 23 gallons of ice cream each year. While classic vanilla remains the most popular flavor, a recent study revealed that Americans are branching out and embracing flavors like moose tracks, rocky road, coffee, birthday cake, and green tea.

If you’re a food enthusiast who loves interesting facts and trivia, you’re likely curious about the origins of ice cream, the battle between gelato and ice cream, and the ice cream traditions around the world. One burning question for many is: who invented ice cream?

While the true origin of ice cream is difficult to trace, historians believe that ancient civilizations found ways to obtain ice to cool their food. In the ancient world, people would collect ice from natural sources, high up in the mountains or by evaporation in desert regions like Ancient Egypt. However, it wasn’t until the Persians invented a method of artificial refrigeration in the form of a pyramidal structure called a yakhchal that ice cream began to resemble the treat we know today.

The influence of ice cream eventually spread to Europe through Moorish culture after the Crusades. It was during the Age of Exploration that ice cream made its debut in the Americas. Spanish colonizers brought ingredients like chocolate and vanilla from Mexico, while French aristocrats and the English further refined the frozen dessert using milk, cream, and various flavors.

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Ice cream became a sensation in 18th century Europe, and even wealthy American colonists had access to it. Figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson imported ice cream-making pots from Europe, and Jefferson’s love for ice cream helped popularize it in the country.

While Thomas Jefferson is often associated with the introduction of ice cream to America, the true pioneers of its production were chefs like James Hemings, Augustus Jackson, and Honoré Julien. James Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved chef, returned from France with recipes for vanilla ice cream, macaroni and cheese, and whipped cream. Augustus Jackson, a free Black man from Philadelphia, is credited with revolutionizing ice cream production by developing the modern manufacturing method. His technique involved adding salt to ice, which lowered and controlled the temperature.

The popularity of ice cream continued to soar, and America’s oldest ice cream brand, Bassetts Ice Cream, began operation in Philadelphia in 1861. Ice cream’s journey didn’t stop there—soon after, the ice cream cone was accidentally invented, becoming the perfect vessel for enjoying this frozen delight.

While eggs are often included in ice cream recipes, not all varieties contain them. French chefs in the mid-1700s introduced frozen custard, which added egg yolks to the mix. The presence of eggs differentiates ice cream from frozen custard, according to regulations set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Now, let’s talk flavors. Even though it’s challenging to identify the first-ever flavor of ice cream, historians have found early mentions of ice and dairy desserts in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). However, the first modern flavor is believed to be chocolate, with a recipe dating back to 1692 in Naples, Italy.

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Vanilla, on the other hand, is often associated with Thomas Jefferson, who recorded the first-known ice cream recipe in America. His enslaved chef, James Hemings, is credited with perfecting the vanilla ice cream recipe. Butter pecan, strawberry, and many other flavors have unique stories and histories, but their origins remain elusive.

Ice cream’s popularity soared with the advent of artificial refrigeration, making it accessible to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Today, ice cream is available in countless flavors, served in ice cream shops, supermarkets, and even through ice cream trucks. It has become a staple in our lives, enjoyed on special occasions or as a simple pleasure after a long day.

Ice cream has solidified its place in the hearts of Americans. It has transcended its association with wealth and become a beloved treat that brings joy and comfort to all. So, the next time you scoop yourself a bowl of ice cream, remember the fascinating journey it has taken to become a cherished part of American culture.


  • Sarah Wassberg Johnson, food historian
  • Sarah Lohman, food historian and author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine
  • U.S. Census Bureau: “National Ice Cream Month and Day: July and July 18, 2021”
  • Instacart: “Instacart Scoops Up America’s ‘Flavorite’ Ice Cream in Every State”
  • Food and Drug Administration: “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21”
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer: “The ‘father of ice cream’ was a black Philadelphian who served in the White House. Or was he?”
  • Butter Pecan Podcast: “E5. Butter Pecan Ice Cream”
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