Meet Me in St. Louis
It’s June in North America, which means the thermometer’s rising and strawberries are in season. Bring on the ice cream and join us at that most vintage celebration of summer, the ice cream social!
If you prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to find a transcript.
Home economist Laura MacFarlane worked closely with Mary Brooks Picken at the Woman’s Institute for Domestic Arts and Sciences, which you may remember from Episode 2.
Listen to Episode 16: Time for Tea! for the discussion of curate’s assistants at around 3:40..
Jennifer Lamont Leo’s fiction:
Transcript of Episode 17: An Ice Cream Social
Welcome to A Sparkling Vintage Life, where we talk about all things vintage and celebrate the grace and charm of an earlier era. I’m your host, Jennifer Leo, and this is Episode number seventeen.
Hello, Sparklers. I’m so happy you’ve stopped by to spend a few minutes with me. It’s June 21, 2019, as I record this, which means summer has officially started, although apparently northern Idaho missed the memo and so I’m sitting here wrapped in a sweater. Nevertheless, summer is here, so this episode is the first of a short series on ways to enjoy a Sparkling Vintage summer. Today we’re talking about that classic summertime treat, ice cream.
But first, I wanted to give a heartfelt thank-you to Sparkler Mamamanzke, who left a five-star review. She wrote: “A Sparkling Vintage Life takes me away. When I just want to escape the stresses of today, I enjoy listening to Ms. Leo. It’s refreshing and clean. If only I were born in that era.” That’s how I hope every one of you feels while listening to the podcast. I want it to be a respite from the hustle and bustle of life, a little oasis of calm and a place to think about things that are true, good, and beautiful.
Also, on last week’s episode about tea, I mentioned that multi-tiered tray called a curate’s assistant. I mentioned that I didn’t know where the term “curate’s assistant” came from, but speculated that it had to do with church services, specifically Anglican, where a “curate” is the lowest form of the priesthood–the beginner level, as it were, assisting a priest or vicar. Sparkler Linda wrote in to say she’d recently heard that in the context of food, “to curate” means to put together certain foods for a particular meal or gathering. I guess it’s sort of like curating an exhibit in a museum, or curating a wardrobe, where you carefully choose some items and leave out others to achieve a desired effect. So maybe that’s where the term comes from. Thanks, Linda, for writing in.
And now on to our topic, which is ice cream. Writing in 1926, home economist Laura MacFarlane wrote, “No other variety of food appears to retain its popularity throughout the year with old and young alike as ice cream and its closely related desserts. But there is no time or season when these delicacies are so much appreciated nor so nearly “touch the spot” as when the mercury is creeping perilously near 100 degrees. Reinforced with a heaping dish of fresh-fruit ice cream, you will be prepared to baffle even the cruelest plans that Old Sol will take such delight in perpetrating [during high summer].”
In America, the first time we know of ice cream being served at a gathering was 1744, when Maryland governor Thomas Bladen served strawberry ice cream at a dinner party. Soon it became a favored dessert in the Capitol, with George Washington, Dolley Madison, and Alexander Hamilton’s wife Betsy Hamilton all being particularly avid fans. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson served ice cream at an official White House dinner. He liked it so much that he learned to make it and even imported equipment to do so. At that time, ice cream was molded into shapes. I can’t imagine the effort it took to make and serve ice cream in steamy Washington, D.C., or anywhere in the American South, in the days before refrigeration, But of course it was a treat for the wealthy, as they were the ones with the resources to build ice houses on their estates and plantations.
However, in the early nineteenth century, two African Americans–Mrs. Jeremiah Shedd and Mr. Augustus Jackson,–brought ice cream to the general population. Mrs. Shedd opened a catering business serving “frozen cream, sugar, and fruit” which became a sensation. And about twenty years after that, in 1832, Augustus Jackson, a White House chef, invented an efficient new way to manufacture ice cream using salt mixed in with the cream. Sadly, he never applied for a patent. Often called “The father of ice cream,” Jackson moved to Philadelphia and experimented with more flavors and methods, and he distributed the ice cream in tin cans to places called “ice cream parlors.” Ice cream parlors gained popularity throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as family-friendly places where young people and ladies could safely gather. Then they got a huge boost during Prohibition, when the liquor business went underground and many saloons switched to serving ice cream rather than close their doors. Drug stores, too, opened ice cream and lunch counters to serve the weary shopper in need of refreshment.
Meanwhile, back in 1843 Nancy Johnson had invented a hand-cranked ice cream freezer, and she did patent it. This contraption meant that anybody with sufficient arm strength and patience could make ice cream at home. Ice-cream-churning was especially popular on farms with their ready access to fruit from the orchards and cream from the cows. The image of children taking turns cranking the ice cream on the back porch has become an iconic symbol of heartland America.
After the Civil War, large cities saw the advent of street vendors, or Hokey Pokey men, as they were called. These vendors, who were often Italian immigrants, were the forerunners of the Good Humor truck some of us may remember from childhood. The origin of the name “hokey-pokey” is a bit of a mystery. Some think it’s a variation of the magic term, “hocus pocus.” More likely, it’s a corruption of the Italian “Oche poco,” or “Oh, how little,” referring to the price of the ice cream, which was cheap, and not the serving size. Lumps of ice cream were served in glass or wrapped in paper under sometimes questionable sanitation.
In 1897 another African American, Alfred L. Cralle, was issued a patent for the ice cream scoop, which allowed the scooper to dispense a uniform serving of ice cream using just one hand. Cralle’s basic design is still widely in use today.
Ice cream as America’s favorite dessert got a big boost at the World’s Fairs in Philadelphia in 1876 and Chicago in 1893, but it was at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904 where the ice cream cone was introduced to America, although the story of exactly which vendor should get the credit for introducing it is a matter of some debate. If you watch the old Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St. Louis, filmed in 1944, you’ll see the family enjoying ice cream cones as they visit the Fair.
Another twentieth-century innovation is the ice cream sundae. Here, too, the exact birthplace of the sundae is a bit sketchy, with two towns–Ithaca, NY, and Two Rivers, Wisconsin–nearly coming to blows over it with heated debates in the newspapers. A third town, Evanston, Illinois, doesn’t claim to have come up with the sundae, but they do like to take credit for the name. Evanston was home to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which opposed alcohol in all forms and championed the sundae as an alternative to alcoholic drinks. The story goes that religious hard-liners objected to the use of Sunday, the Lord’s Day, for such a decadent concoction. So the spelling was changed to s-u-n-d-a-e to differentiate it from the day of the week. Again, much of this may be apocryphal. It may be, as one source reported, a simple matter of a misspelling on a shipment of the trademark tall, fluted glassware that sundaes are served in. No matter how it’s spelled, sundaes and make-it-yourself sundae bars, with ice cream and all the fixin’s, are standard fare at ice cream socials.
For some reason, gatherings around ice cream are called “socials.” I suppose they could be called “ice cream parties” just as well, but “social” is the term that has stuck.
I remember attending ice cream socials at my church when I was a child, but they seem to have gone out of style except in pockets here and there. I understand there’s a quite well-known one held every summer on Prince Edward Island, the home base of author Lucy Maud Montgomery and her beloved heroine, Anne of Green Gables. But, of course, an ice-cream social seems a particularly Anne Shirley-ish thing to do.
In the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, ice cream socials became a favorite form of entertainment. Churches, schools, and other nonprofit organizations, in particular, latched onto the ice cream social as a way to raise funds for a good cause. I think it’s time to bring it back.
What do you need to put on an ice cream social? Well, ice cream, of course, and a way to keep it cold on a hot day. Bins of ice or portable freezers or access to a kitchen with a freezer is ideal. A variety of flavors would be good, as well as a variety of mix-ins: sprinkles, cut-up fruit, bits of candy, that sort of thing. Some jars of sauce to pour over top. Whipped cream. Maraschino cherries. Baked goods to accompany the ice cream are nice. Shortbread, of course, for strawberry shortcake during berry season. Perhaps brownies, cake, or cookies. Bring plenty of bowls and spoons–you don’t want to run out. For decorating ideas, visit Pinterest and do a search for “ice cream social” or “strawberry social.” You’ll be deluged with decorating ideas.
How about you? Are you fond of ice cream? Have you ever been to an ice cream social, or hosted one yourself? You can let me know in the comments.
Today’s grace note is the movie I mentioned earlier, Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland, It came out in 1944, which makes it seventy-five years old this year. If you enjoy dreamy, nostalgic images of early-twentieth-century Americana, this is the movie for you. Set in St. Louis, Missouri, in the year leading up to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the story centers around one prosperous family as they move through summer, fall, winter, and spring, and particularly one daughter of that family, Esther, as she meets and is courted by the young man who’s just moved in next door. It’s a musical containing several songs you might recognize, like “The Boy Next Door,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “The Trolley Song. Look for Meet Me in St. Louis when you’ve had it with twenty-first century life and are ready for an idyllic rose-tinted trip down Memory Lane.
My Merriam-Webster dictionary dates the term “ice cream cone” to 1909, but I’m sure I’ve heard the confection itself first appeared at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. Or maybe I just remember that scene from Meet Me in St. Louis, one of my favorite movies of all time, or images like this commemorative stamp, below.
Wikipedia dates the concept of the cone back way back to an 1888 cookbook that included “Cornet with Cream,” a similar concept to the familiar cone.
(Did you know there’s also an “ice cream chair,” armless with a circular seat, for use in ice cream parlors? It’s a wonder what turns up when scanning the dictionary. )
Anyway, back to the cone. The specifics vary. It can be conical in shape, or more bucket-like with a flat bottom (sometimes called a cup or a cake cone). It can be sweetened (sugar cone) or unsweetened. The waffle-like or cake-like texture pairs well with the rich cream and helps soak it up as it melts. In any case, the point of the cone is that it allows ice cream to be eaten on the go, without dishes or utensils. You still have to be quick about it, though, to avoid your fingers getting coated in melting ice cream.
My personal favorite is mint-chocolate chip ice cream in a sugar cone. What’s your favorite kind of cone, and your favorite flavor of ice cream to put in it?