New England’s four-season love affair with ice cream is part of a historic legacy.
Hundreds of years after the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed icy treats of snow-cooled wine and Chinese rulers began turning fermented milk and flour into a tasty chilled dessert (or so the legends go), America’s first president plunked down the equivalent of $200 for a machine capable of churning out the latest sweet frozen concoction–ice cream. Washington’s splurge was a solid indicator of things to come for the dairy dessert. Today America eats more ice cream than any other country: an average of 48 pints per person per year. And in New England, our love for ice cream is banana split-size.
One often-repeated but hard-to-verify factoid states that New Englanders consume more ice cream per capita than folks anywhere else in the country, but if you need proof, just visit an ice-cream shop in the suburbs or on a Boston street in winter. There, red-cheeked New Englanders shed their parkas to dig into three-scoop bowls or face frigid winds with sugar cones clenched firmly in gloved hands. It’s a serious love that knows no seasonal limits.
In the days before electric refrigeration, large blocks of pond or lake ice were cut in winter and stored throughout summer for use in making ice cream. Thanks to this home advantage, a steady supply of affordable ice cream stocked New England drugstores and soda fountains during the early 20th century, dispensing sweet sundaes and frappes as fast as they could be scooped and blended. Before long, brands such as Hood, which opened its first dairy bar on Beacon Street in Boston in 1900 (the classic Hoodsie Cups came along in 1947), and Brigham’s, which debuted nearby in 1914, were local mainstays. Later, as the suburban sprawl of the 1950s took hold, ice cream moved into supermarkets and onto menus at long-established family restaurants such as the Friendly’s and Howard Johnson chains, also based in Massachusetts. The latter, founded in 1925, gained popularity nationwide thanks to its prominent roadside presence and “Famous 28 Flavors” of ice cream.
Later developments, too, have strong New England roots. In 1973 Steve Herrell set up shop in Somerville, Massachusetts, offering premium ice cream with custom candy “mix-ins” chosen by the customer—now considered the launch of the “make your own flavor” model. Then, in 1978, childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took a $12,000 investment and opened their first ice-cream parlor in Burlington, Vermont. The result (Ben & Jerry’s, of course) has since grown into one of the most popular brands of premium ice cream in the world, lauded for its creamy texture and toothsome chunks.
From the dripping chocolate snackbar cone to the artfully arranged artisanal scoop in the finest restaurant, ice cream is the cold, creamy day brightener we New Englanders can’t get enough of. And when the smile comes with the ease of a single scoop, why should we ever stop?