The premise of The Secret History of Food is straightforward: There’s an interesting story behind almost everything we eat. And in the book, out August 31, Matt Siegel fills chapters with the kinds of strange, real-life anecdotes you’ll find yourself reeling off at your next dinner party with the set up, “Fun fact…”
In this except, from a chapter on vanilla that addresses precisely how the flavor came to be a stand-in for the dull and commonplace when the plant itself is anything but, Siegel explains how ice cream traversed Prohibition and World Wars to become the ultimate in American comfort foods. — Monica Burton
Flavored ices and frozen desserts have been coveted for thousands of years, across many cultures, by people who have gone to great lengths to procure them. The ancient Greeks and Romans used to climb mountains to harvest ice they’d mix with wine or honey to make sorbet, a word that comes from the Arabic sharba (“drink”) and sharbat, a drink made by mixing snow with various spices and flower blossoms. The Chinese made sherbet by covering containers with snow and saltpeter (also used in making gunpowder) to lower the freezing point of milk mixed with rice, and the Mongols made ice cream by riding horses in subfreezing temperatures while carrying cream stored in animal intestines, which would then freeze and be churned smooth by the galloping of their horses.
Even as late as the eighteenth century, ice cream was often reserved for those patient enough to wait for snowstorms or wealthy and patient enough to harvest ice from mountains or frozen rivers and keep it from melting in underground pits insulated with layers of sawdust, straw, or animal fur.
So part of the reason ice cream was so coveted is that, like vanilla, it was scarce and impracticable. And yet, even as its availability and practicality increased, so, too, did its associations with comfort.
When the Eighteenth Amendment outlawed the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol in the 1920s, many early American breweries such as Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling turned to making ice cream and soda to stay afloat, capitalizing both on shared manufacturing processes, like bottling and refrigeration, and the fact that ice cream’s ingredients (fat, sugar, and vanilla) made a decent substitute for alcohol for the drowning of one’s emotions.
In fact, ice cream stood in for alcohol as a source of national comfort and diversion to such a degree that by 1929, ice cream consumption had grown by more than 100 million gallons annually, peaking at more than a million gallons per day. Its consumption dipped with the crash of the stock market later that same year, when the Great Depression ushered in a decade of depressing foods like mustard sandwiches and mock apple pies, which substituted crackers for apple slices. Yet even then ice cream endured — not just in spite of rocky times but because of them.
There are disputing claims as to who created the flavor Rocky Road, but we do know that it was popularized by William Dreyer and Joseph Edy, two California ice cream makers who began marketing it as a culinary metaphor in 1929 to help people cope with the Great Depression. Toppings at the time were primarily relegated to the point of sale and sprinkled on top, so the idea of mixing in broken chunks of marshmallows and nuts (originally walnuts but later almonds, which, the story goes, Dreyer cut up with sewing scissors borrowed from his wife) was pretty much unheard of. The name “Rocky Road” has since blended into the vernacular in the same way we’ve appropriated “Popsicle” to mean “frozen ice pop,” when really it’s a protected trademark owned by Unilever, the only brand that can legally sell “Popsicles”; but it used to be symbolic of comfort and perseverance — a reminder that life could still be sweet amid broken, rocky pieces.
Yet probably the most critical contribution to the comfort of ice cream and vanilla came during World War II. For thousands of years and across cultures, the military focus on food was primarily caloric: maximize the food intake of your own soldiers (and that of their horses and wives and children, who remained at home while much of the workforce was off fighting) and minimize that of your enemies. But that changed during World War I, when Herbert Hoover rallied Americans on the importance of food not just for calories during wartime but for comfort, officially classifying ice cream as “essential foodstuffs” during the war and making it an inseparable part of the American war machine from that point forward.
You see, before Hoover became the United States’ thirty-first president in 1929 (and before the United States entered World War I in 1917), he was a philanthropist who organized food relief in Belgium, which was caught in the middle of a conflict between Germany and Great Britain. Essentially, the entire nation of Belgium was on the brink of starvation in 1914 because the Germans had invaded it on their way to France and were eating all the food — and the British navy was blocking shipments of food because they didn’t want it to go to the Germans and didn’t trust the Germans not to take it from the Belgians.
Fortunately, Hoover, who at the time was living in London, intervened and convinced both sides to let him organize food relief as a private citizen, essentially creating his own pirate nation with its own flag, naval fleet, and railroads. Between 1914 and 1919, Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium fed about 10 million civilian refugees in occupied France and Belgium, delivering, in total, about 4,998,059 tons of flour, grain, rice, beans, peas, pork, milk, sugar, and miscellaneous staples and food items valued at $861,340,244.21 (roughly the equivalent of $13,436,907,809.70 today).
But Hoover’s neutrality ended when the United States entered the war in 1917; his pirate organization continued to provide food relief as a neutral entity, but Hoover himself volunteered to head the newly established US Food Administration, hoping to do for his own country what he’d done for Belgium — and even offering to take the position without pay.
He basically became czar of the US food supply, exerting totalitarian control over prices, distribution, and purchasing. But Hoover didn’t want control; part of the reason he’d insisted on taking the job without salary was to demonstrate sacrifice to the American people. So while nations on either side of the conflict imposed mandatory rationing to conserve food supplies — as they’d always done in wartime — Hoover saw this as un-American (“of the nature of dictatorship”) and appealed instead to the American “spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice.”
Not only did he promise Americans that “food will win the war,” but he promised a win without losing the very freedoms and values they were fighting for — including simple pleasures like good old American ice cream and the freedom to purchase ingredients at will.
And Americans were eager to help. Within months he’d built a force of nearly half a million volunteers and convinced more than 10 million households to sign pledge cards vowing to “Hooverize” their meals by cutting down on staples such as wheat, fat, and sugar.
Corporate America also contributed. Restaurants and public eateries saved more than 250 million pounds of wheat, 300 million pounds of meat, and 56 million pounds of sugar (enough to feed 8 million soldiers for a month) by observing days such as Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays; food manufacturers spent their own advertising budgets patriotically urging consumers to consume less of their commodities; and newspapers, retailers, and ad agencies volunteered their expertise and ad space — culminating in an estimated $19,417,600 in donated services and displays. Even the White House pitched in by grazing sheep on the front lawn.
The result was a tripling of US food exports almost instantaneously, producing 18 million tons of food exports in our first full year of war alone.
Yet the ice cream industry demanded more. An editorial in the May 1918 issue of The Ice Cream Review (an offshoot of Milwaukee’s Butter, Cheese & Egg Journal) spooned out sharp criticism for the scant availability of ice cream overseas and cried for Washington to intervene by subsidizing Allied ice cream factories across Europe: “Reports from nearly all the camps show that the per capita consumption of ice cream is nearly twice the figure for the average of the entire country. Are these boys going to miss something out of their lives when they go across? Yes, they are, and it is a shame that no one has thought to provide this home comfort.”
And it wasn’t just comfort the ice cream industry sought to provide for soldiers but good health and morale:
In this country every medical hospital uses ice cream as a food and doctors would not know how to do without it. But what of our wounded and sick boys in France? Are they to lie in bed wishing for a dish of good old American ice cream? They are up to the present, for ice cream and ices is taboo in France. It clearly is the duty of the Surgeon General or some other officer to demand that a supply be forthcoming.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. The ice cream industry was still in its infancy. Flavors were still largely limited to chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla, and ice cream on a stick wasn’t even invented yet; it wouldn’t be patented until 1923. Refrigeration was also in its infancy, and a lot of the cooling technologies that did exist depended on toxic gases like ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide (as opposed to Freon, which was introduced in the 1930s and merely killed the environment). So refrigeration was not only expensive and inadequate but potentially deadly.
Meanwhile, sugar was in shorter supply than Hoover had let on. Despite conservation efforts, the United States was still consuming far more of it per capita than her allies overseas — and before the war had imported the bulk of its sugar supply from Germany, which obviously wasn’t going to happen anymore; plus, not only had Germany stopped exporting sugar to the United States, but it had started taking it from their neighbors, too, making the market even more competitive.
So rather than building ice cream factories overseas, Hoover was eventually forced to ask manufacturers to reduce their use of sugar domestically — ruling in the summer of 1918 “Ice cream is no longer considered so essential as to justify free use of sugar in its manufacture.”
Still, the ice cream industry fared better than others, having to cut just 25 percent of its sugar use as opposed to a 50 percent cut for manufacturers of “less essential” commodities such as chocolate, soda, and chewing gum. And Hoover’s support for ice cream, coupled with the industrial boom of the postwar economy and a returning workforce who fondly recalled eating it in wartime camps and hospitals, helped the industry soar soon after the war ended.
In fact, we owe a lot of ice cream’s postwar popularity not just to Hoover, Yuengling, and Rocky Road but to a World War I veteran named Howard Johnson who, after returning from service in France, purchased a dilapidated drugstore with a soda fountain and brought it back to life with an ice cream recipe he purchased from a German street vendor. Howard Johnson’s (truncated as “HoJo’s”) might not be a household name anymore but at one point it was the largest food chain in America, with more than a thousand locations and a new location opening every nine days.
The postwar twenties also saw the debut of the Eskimo Pie; the Popsicle (originally called the “Epsicle” by its creator, Frank W. Epperson, whose children took to calling it “Pop’s Sicle”); and the ice cream bar, created in Youngstown, Ohio, by a candy maker named Harry Burt, who inserted lollipop sticks into bars of vanilla ice cream coated in chocolate and called it the Good Humor Sucker, later changed to the Good Humor Bar. By the summer of 1921, authorities on Ellis Island had even begun handing out ice cream to immigrants as part of their first American meal.
So by the time World War II came around, ice cream (still largely vanilla, which accounted for roughly 80 percent of the market) had become inseparable from the American way of life, an emblem of American comfort, freedom, and democracy. Once again the rest of the world went back to banning ice cream as part of its rationing efforts (with Great Britain adding salt to the wound by endorsing carrots on sticks as the official wartime substitute for ice cream bars). This time, however, the United States doubled down, building pop-up ice cream factories on the front lines; delivering individual ice cream cartons to foxholes; spending more than a million dollars on a floating ice cream barge that roamed the Pacific delivering ice cream to Allied ships incapable of making their own; and distributing 135 million pounds of dehydrated ice cream base in 1943 alone.
And you’re goddamn right we won the war.
In 1942, when Japanese torpedoes struck the USS Lexington, then the second largest aircraft carrier in the navy’s arsenal, the crew abandoned ship — but not before breaking into the freezer and raiding all the ice cream. Survivors describe scooping it into their helmets before lowering themselves into shark-infested waters. US bomber crews used to make ice cream while flying over enemy territory after figuring out that they could strap buckets of ice cream mix to the outside of their planes during missions; by the time they landed, the mix would have frozen in the cold temperature of high altitude and been churned smooth by engine vibrations and turbulence, if not machine-gun fire and midair explosions. And soldiers on the ground took to using their helmets as mixing bowls to improvise ice cream from snow and melted chocolate bars.
Ice cream became so tied to national morale, in fact, that when the most decorated member of the Marine Corps, General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, called it a “sissy food” in the 1950s and tried to convince his marines that they’d be tougher on a diet of beer and whiskey, he drew so much national backlash that the Pentagon had to intervene with an official statement promising ice cream would be served no less than three times a week.
None of this is to suggest that ice cream was the only food to provide comfort during the war — or that it was easily obtained. “No G.I. who passed through Europe in 1944 or 1945 could have failed to notice the plight of its inhabitants,” writes historian Lee Kennett, who describes GIs going through chow lines two or three times to grab extra food for impoverished locals and guards turning their backs while food and fuel supplies mysteriously went missing.
Meanwhile, for American POWs being held captive overseas — where they were often forced to survive on things like maggot-infested rice, stale bread, rotten vegetables, and often far less or far worse — comfort food was, in the words of one POW, “as obtainable as a slice of the moon.”
“Somebody listening in may have heard us talking about politics or sport, or anything else,” recalls British WWII veteran Harold Goulding, who spent more than three years in Japanese POW camps, “but I think really those were just symbols and we were really talking about food all the time.”
Other symbols, says Goulding, were less cryptic, like pictures of food they found in old magazines and plastered to the walls of bunks as if they were pinups. Others passed the time by sharing recipes and filling scrap paper with menus for the elaborate Christmas dinners they’d cook if they made it back home.
“During the forty three months that I was a POW I spent a lot of time just writing out food and holiday menus to keep myself somewhat sane and focused,” recalls Mess Sergeant Morris Lewis.
And while these menus included far more than just vanilla ice cream, they also highlight what it is that makes it so comforting.
Explains Sue Shephard, who catalogued many of these menus in her paper “A Slice of the Moon,” presented at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, “Few tried to recall the elegant meals, in restaurants, of scallops and oyster, Dover soles, pheasant or Chateaubriand steaks. That wasn’t the food they wanted to remember; it was home food of childhood which represented unconditional love, without cares or responsibilities.”
And few foods represent that better than ice cream.
Vanilla, in particular, takes us back to a time when life and ice cream felt simpler — even if the process of making ice cream might not have been: a time before the intrusion of artificial flavors, colors, stabilizers, emulsifiers, and preservatives.
Clinical research seems to confirm this. Researchers testing the neurological effects of ice cream, chocolate, and yogurt found that only ice cream inhibited the human startle response across genders with statistical significance, leading them to theorize that there’s more at play than fat, sugar, and cold temperatures and that a large degree of ice cream’s comfort is psychological: a result of learned associations from memories pairing ice cream with things like summer, vacations, and friendship.
Not to get too Freudian, but it’s possible our comforting memories of ice cream and vanilla go back even further, all the way back to our very first comfort food, given that vanilla is a common flavor in human breast milk (and theoretically in amniotic fluid) — and the tendency of such flavors to impact lifelong food preferences. Indeed, human breast milk isn’t really much different from vanilla ice cream base, minus the ice crystals, considering that human milk is significantly sweeter than cow’s milk and also contains more fat.
Perhaps that’s why, at least in one POW camp, “ice cream” was the code for “news from home” — because, as ex-POW Russell Braddon, that was “what all prisoners of war crave more than anything else.”
From the forthcoming book, THE SECRET HISTORY OF FOOD: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat by Matt Siegel. Copyright © 2021 by Matt Siegel. To be published on August 31st by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.