Emperors of Ice Cream

South Florida offers a veritable world tour of frozen goodness

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 South Floridian 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 demanded 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 13th Century, whereupon Catherine de Médicis's chefs took it 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 7th Century. And a believable if slightly fantastic story line runs from Arab traders who learned how to combine syrups and ice from the Chinese to the Venetians and Romans. In the 4th 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 pureed 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 concocted. 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 in Miami-Dade County's North Beach area, and "super dolce de leche," a specialty at the weeks-old i Fiori (1832-A S. Young Circle, 954-924-9757, open daily from 1 p.m. till 1 a.m.) in Hollywood. 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.

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