Ice cream originated in China; the ice cream cone was invented in America by a Syrian.

Strawberry sundae with chocolate syrup, coconut flakes and crushed peanuts

Yesterday, we were having strawberry ice cream and I decided to enjoy mine with leftover ganache, coconut flakes and crushed sweetened peanuts. In short, I made a sundae, Asian style, using toppings not commonly associated with a sundae. I was enjoying my delicious concoction when, out of nowhere, it hit me — why is it called a sundae? I was researching the origin of the sundae when another thought came unbidden. Where did ice cream come from?

Ice cream is one of the most popular sweets I know of. It’s sold in groceries, on the streets, in stalls, in restaurants… ice cream is everywhere and beloved by all. Ice cream is something that has always been there. And it is, perhaps, this omni-presence that has made me take it for granted. Sure, I know what ice cream is made of. In fact, I know that so well because we make ice cream at home. But, aside from that, what do I know about ice cream, really? How was it invented? And where?

I was expecting that the origin of ice cream would point to a place traditionally associated with dairy products. How wrong I was. Ice cream came from China and it is so much older than I imagined.

Ice cream was accidentally invented in 200 B.C. “when a milk and rice mixture was frozen by packing it into snow” and it was Marco Polo who introduced it to Europe. The ice cream cone came more than 2,000 years later.

A Syrian called Ernest E Hamwi is believed to have invented the ice-cream cone.

Apparently, during the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair in the United States, his waffle booth was next to an ice-cream seller who ran short of dishes.

As a favour, Hamwi rolled a waffle to hold his ice-cream and the cone was born. [BBC]

What makes an ice cream a sundae? And how was the sundae invented? There are two versions. The first version is related to ice cream soda and the popularity of ice cream soda parlors. What’s ice cream soda? When you mix ice cream with a soft drink or carbonated water, you have an ice cream soda or float, as it is also known.

In America (and in many other parts of the world), there used to be religious laws that prohibited certain things on certain days. I say used to be because most of these have been repealed for being unconstitutional. In Puritan communities, for instance, a store owner was supposed to keep his store closed on Sundays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some of the laws prohibited hunting or even buying groceries on Sundays. And then there was the law that prohibited the consumption of sodas on Sunday.

Evanston, Chicago’s Godly neighbor, “Heavenston” as the good Frances E. Willard used to call it, was in those days at least rather Methodist minded. The piety of the town resented the dissipating influences of the soda fountain on Sunday and the good town fathers, yielding to this churchly influence, passed an ordinance prohibiting the retailing of ice cream sodas on Sunday.

Some ingenious confectioners and drug store operators, in “Heavenston,” obeying the law, served ice cream with the syrup of your choice without the soda. Thereby complying with the law. They did not serve ice cream sodas. They served sodas without soda on Sunday. This sodaless soda was the Sunday soda. It proved palatable and popular and orders for Sundays began to cross the counters on Mondays.

Objections then was made to christening a dish after the Sabbath. So the spelling of “sunday” was changed. It became an established dish and an established word and finally the Heavenston “sundae” appeared even in Congregational Connecticut. [Evanston Public Library]

The second version claims that the ice cream sundae was not born Chicago but in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

The ice cream sundae story dates back to 1881 when chocolate sauce was used to make ice cream sodas at Ed Berners’ soda fountain at 1404 15th Street. One day, a vacationing George Hallauer – a Two Rivers native then living in Illinois – asked Berners to put some of the chocolate sauce over a dish of ice cream. According to a 1929 interview with Berners, he apparently didn’t think it was a good idea.

As Berners related in the 1929 Two Rivers Reporter interview, “One night, Hallauer dropped in and ordered a dish of ice cream. As I was serving it, he spied a bottle of chocolate syrup on the back bar, which I used for making sodas. ‘Why don’t you put some of that chocolate on the ice cream?’” he asked.

“‘You don’t want to ruin the flavor of the ice cream,’ I protested, but Hallauer answered ‘I’ll try anything once,’ and I poured on the chocolate. Hallauer liked it, and the ice cream sundae was born.” [Two Rivers Economic Development]

Which is fact, which is anecdotal and which is pure fiction, I do not know. But everything I read about the ice cream was very interesting. Imagine learning so much just because I had a glass of home-concocted sundae.

  • natzsm

    I grew up in Evanston 40 years ago and I love ice cream sundaes but it never occurred to me to do a Google search on any of them.

    Thank you for this very interesting historical tidbit which I would gladly add to my list of fun facts I grew up with like having the same birthday as Mickey Mouse. :)

    • Connie Veneracion

      List Tarte Tatin too. Borne out of an accident. :)

      I’m wondering now what other food items will turn out to have interesting historical backgrounds.

  • Albert ERT Rendal

    thanks for an interesting info Connie… :)