Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Like ice cream? Thank China

| July 27, 2021 1:00 AM

Ages ago when I worked for North Idaho College, I joined a governor’s trade mission to China (NIC’s Workforce Training Center had contracts with companies there). Among many memorable moments was a lesson in culinary taste.

It was blistering hot that June day on the Great Wall. A colleague ahead shouted, “Sholeh, want an ice cream bar?”

A frozen treat! What bliss. There is a god.

“Yes, please! Anything fruity.”

Turns out, this popsicle trolley had no fruit. No vanilla or chocolate. Vern got me some kind of beet; he reasoned red was closer to fruit than green bean. They were all vegetables. All.

When in China …

Other traditionally popular flavors in Chinese ice cream (let’s call them frozen treat) shops include red adzuki bean and green mung bean. Want to try some salted egg yolk? Pecan maybe, but rice wine?

Sounds weird, right? Except near as anyone can tell, China invented ice cream. So we’re the weird ones.

July is National Ice Cream Month. The first recorded ice-cream-like food was when China’s King Tang of Shang ordered his “ice men” to make a dish of buffalo milk, flour and camphor with shaved ice in the 7th century. Yes, camphor. Maybe it tasted like mint.

Much earlier, about 200 B.C.E., Chinese froze a milk-and-rice mixture by packing it in snow. Roman emperors supposedly ate flavored snow, a kind of pre-ice cream. Italian explorer Marco Polo brought ice cream-making methods from China to Italy in the 13th century.

Today, some fruit flavors and our creamier chocolates and vanillas are catching on in China. Some of theirs, such as jasmine and green tea, have caught on here. Italian gelato is gaining ground faster there, according to news stories, as it’s closer to traditional Chinese styles than our creamy varieties.

Americans certainly are famous for our sweet tooth. As one customer said on The World Radio program July 22, 2021:

“Whatever can make you fat … that’s what Americans want in their ice cream. Chinese people want a less sweeter flavor.”

Speaking of sweet, a little story about the ice cream sundae. According to the Farmers Almanac, it started as a way around a “Blue Law” — religious laws restricting perceived sin, such as selling liquor on Sunday. In the late 1800s in some states it was also illegal to sell soda on Sunday. Apparently the “sucking” was considered offensive.

But drugstore soda counters were social centers, where locals loved to congregate over root beer floats on hot Sunday afternoons. So the druggists’ solution was simply to swap soda for chocolate sauce and ditch the straw for a spoon. Business boomed.

Oh, and in another nod to religious sensitivity, it’s said folks in Evanston, Ill., came up with the idea to swap the “y” for an “e,” hence the name ice cream sundae.

I don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds fun.

Happy scooping!


Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who still favors the fruitier flavors. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.