Emperors of Ice Cream

I've been bothered ever since I read Al Martinez's essay, "Confessions of an Ice Cream Fanatic," published in the August 2000 issue of Gourmet magazine. At first I couldn't pinpoint the source of my distaste, but after two years of reflecting on the article's thesis -- that the "Statue of Liberty should be hoisting a cone instead of a torch" -- and spooning my way through South Florida ice cream parlors and restaurants, I've finally located the ice-cold needle of my discomfort. Despite the treatise's insistence that "every [American] man, woman and child here eats a world-leading average of 24 quarts a year, with vanilla our first choice," we do not, as demonstrated by many Miami retailers, have exclusive, international rights to ice cream.

Sure, we may eat a literal ton or two of it (if we're not lactose-intolerant, that is). And the industry does flourish here, no doubt about that. But ice cream is not just, as the Food Lover's Companion defines it, "America's favorite dessert"; citizens of countries ranging from Argentina to Bali are addicted to the masochistic allure of brain freeze. Nor do we all prefer vanilla, especially when our various ethnic backgrounds may lead us to flavors like green tea, mango, or even sweet potato.

Hell, we didn't even invent the stuff. In fact, though I'm sure he didn't intend it and certainly didn't explore it in the Gourmet piece, Martinez has a point when he writes, "Ice cream is to Americans what tea is to England." After all, while the Brits may have given the leafy industry everlasting life, they didn't exactly come up with orange-pekoe either.

We can probably thank Asian gastronomic evolution for providing national obsessions on both sides of the pond. The Chinese began cultivating tea for medicinal reasons in about 2000 B.C., though it didn't become in demand as a refreshing hot beverage until other ethnicities, such as the Japanese, sampled it circa 600 A.D. Likewise, popular thought gives the ancient Chinese the nod for discovering iced drinks and sweets as early as 2000 B.C. Marco Polo apparently then brought recipes for ices and sorbets back to Italy with him in the Thirteenth Century, whereupon Catherine de Médicis's chefs took them to France when she married the Duc d'Orleans in 1533. Ices became ice cream when a chef of Charles I found that he could freeze cooked custard, at which point Charles I became so enamored of the substance that he supposedly bribed his chef not to reveal the secrets of making ice cream to the public at large. Obviously the bribe wasn't large enough.

Another account credits China's King Tang of Shang with the first recipe for ice cream, developed in the Seventh Century. And a believable if slightly fantastic storyline runs from Arab traders who learned how to combine syrups and ice from the Chinese to the Venetians and Romans. In the Fourth Century B.C., the Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar became such a devotee that he had his minions bring back snow from the mountains to store in specially built "cold rooms." Nero added puréed fruit to the process, creating what today would be called anything from a smoothie to sorbet.

According to Ices: The Definitive Guide, however, none of these claims has a historical, documented basis. Authors Caroline Liddell and Robin Weir note that there is a solid foundation for why Americans consider the stuff their national dessert. The first written record of ice cream appeared in 1774 in an American newspaper advertisement, placed by a London caterer. After that the record becomes mighty clear. In 1776 the first ice cream parlor opened in New York City. Around the same time, Thomas Jefferson is said to have developed the first American recipe for the treat; Dolley Madison popularized ice cream by serving it at her husband's inauguration ball. Later, Americans Nancy Johnson, Alfred L. Cralle, Ed Berners, and Charles E. Menches would invent, respectively, the hand-cranked ice cream freezer, the ice cream scooper, the ice cream sundae, and the ice cream cone. All of which lends credence to the fact that Americans, as the continent's earlier occupants will attest, are excellent at appropriation. In short, we know a good thing when we taste it.

But so do Italians, as evidenced by Marco Polo and Catherine de Médicis. As a nation, Italy's experiments with ice cream were apace of America's. But as is the case in many instances, Italians showed restraint where Americans worked to make the custard bigger, better, and more fattening than any other in the world. As a result Italians wound up with gelato, naturally low-fat ice cream, while Americans just wound up fat.

Thank God for Argentines. As they did with pastas, Italian immigrants took gelato over to Argentina when they settled the country, and the Latin appetite for chocolate, coffee, and caramel influenced the type of gelati Italian-Argentines brewed. Hence the candy-stocked flavors like ferrero rocher, which you can score at the new Dolce Vita (945 Normandy Dr., Miami Beach, 305-865-2523, call for hours) ice cream shop, and "super dolce de leche," a specialty at the weeks-old i Fiori (1832-A S. Young Circle, Hollywood, 954-924-9757, open daily from 1:00 p.m. till 1:00 a.m.). Although South Floridians have become accustomed to gelaterias in the region, the Argentine version of the Italian ice cream parlor is still something of an innovation here. The novelty -- combined with the white chocolate, tiramisu, and zabajone flavors -- is drawing crowds faster than did our local British pubs when England beat Argentina last month.

Which brings us to Mexicans, clear contenders for the world cup of ice cream. Indeed judging by the implicit history of La Michoacana (636 Belvedere Rd., West Palm Beach, 561-514-3030, open daily from 9:00 a.m. till 10:00 p.m.), a Mexican ice cream parlor, they may be even more fanatical than Italians and Argentines combined. The chain of La Michoacana ice cream parlors can be traced back to Tocumbo, a formerly nondescript village in central Mexico. Tocumbians developed paletas, fruit Popsicles, and sold them along with ice cream at paleterias. Two Tocumbians, Ignacio Alcazar and Augustin Andrade, introduced paletas to Mexico City in the 1940s. Their businesses became so lucrative that they were able to assist other Tocumbians in setting up similar shops. Today all the stores are independently owned and operated, but conservative estimates place La Michoacanas at about 15,000, and Tocumbo is a town wealthy enough to make citizens of Mexico City dream of owning a country house there. You can taste why the formula is so addictive at the West Palm Beach outlet, where fruit pops made from the pure juice of mangoes or strawberries are incredibly refreshing. For chunkier sweets, the ice creams, or paleterias de crema, have swirls of fresh fruit in them.

Willie's Tropical Ice Cream (7748 W. Commercial Blvd., Lauderhill, 954-746-9555, open daily from 11:00 a.m. till 11:00 p.m.), which moved to its current location from Fort Lauderdale last year, is a similar success story. Trinidadian Willie Balgobin started his ice cream business in 1986 with a hand cart and two employees, churning sun-ripened soursops and mangos into ice cream that became an instant hit. Today Willie's Ice Cream has about 30 stores, and the Jamaican grape and raisin, Caribbean coffee, guava dream, and peanut soy flavors remain as authentically Trinidadian as a hammock swinging between two palm trees.

But not all ethnic ice cream parlors are alluring for the frozen goods alone. Along with tropically oriented flavors worthy of Aventura restaurant Chef Allen's proprietor, Allen Susser, who cranks out a mean jackfruit ice cream, Willie's rolls a rich, savory roti. Carol's Ice Cream (615 71st St., Miami Beach, 305-865-3166, open daily from 7:30 a.m. till 11:00 p.m.; Saturday till 11:30 p.m.) offers some incredibly enticing dulce de leche and key lime pie ice creams, neither of which lie too lightly on the hips, but the café also presses Cuban sandwiches and bakes a bubbly cheese bread that is ideal for dunking in a cortadito.

The easiest place to be gastronomically distracted, however, is at downtown Miami's Bali Café (111 NE Second Ave., Miami, 305-358-5751, open daily from 11:00 a.m. till 4:00 p.m.). I went in purely for the durian or avocado ice creams, both of which the restaurant had run out of, and wound up staying for some Indonesian curried chicken and a shredded beef-cucumber sandwich. I left with a cup of lurid, purple yam ice cream that boasted more tuber texture than flavor. Which is probably why when I return, it'll be for a long, slow rijstafel feast so heady and filling that appetite-wise, purple potato ice cream won't even be an option.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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